Company touts new enzyme as key to lowering cellulosic costs

Source: Amanda Peterka • E&E  • Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Danish enzyme manufacturer Novozymes unveiled a new enzyme today that the company says will make cellulosic biofuel cost-competitive with corn ethanol and gasoline.

The technology is the third generation of the Cellic CTec enzyme line and will be used in demonstration plants opening this year in Italy and Virginia.

Peder Nielson, Novozymes’ executive vice president of enzymes, said the new technology will bring the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol to between $2 and $2.50 a gallon.

“We think this marks a milestone where it’s not perfect yet, but it’s actually getting into the cost bracket where this is competitive to both corn ethanol and certainly to gasoline,” Nielson said in an interview yesterday.

The Cellic CTec3 enzyme, he said, is “a smart combination of parts” and “prudent engineering” that will be able to break down wood, wheat straw, corn stober, switchgrass, household waste and other cellulosic feedstocks. The resulting sugar will be fermented into biofuel.

The enzyme builds on a second-generation version that Novozymes introduced two years ago.

Cellic CTec3 will be 1.5 times more efficient than the second-generation version and reduce the cost of producing biofuel by up to 10 percent, Nielson said. It will take 50 kilograms of the new enzyme to make a ton of ethanol.

The M&G Group will use the new enzyme in a demonstration facility scheduled to open this year in Crescentino, Italy. That plant is expected to produce 12 million gallons of ethanol per year.

U.S. company Fiberight LLC will also use the enzyme in a small-scale plant expected to open this year in Lawrenceville, Va., and a plant scheduled to open next year in Blairstown, Iowa. Both plants will use municipal garbage as a feedstock.

A number of plants are expected to open in the coming years in the United States, but so far, cellulosic biofuel production has fallen well below the targets set by U.S. EPA under the renewable fuel standard.

Nielson predicted the industry would pick up by 2014 and 2015 in the wake of demonstration plants opening this year.

Andrew Soare, an alternative fuels analyst at New York City-based Lux Research, said Nielson’s estimates were likely correct but that it was difficult to say when cellulosic biofuels would be competitive with gasoline.

Enzymatic approaches are closer to commercialization than other methods for converting biomass to sugars, such as concentrated acid hydrolysis, Soare said. But since enzymes have not been used at a commercial scale, he said, it is hard to say how efficiently and cheaply they will perform and “whether the enzymes are really going to move this industry to next-generation feedstocks.”

“For next-generation biofuels, converting cellulose to sugars is the major chokepoint,” Soare said. “Efficient conversion and cheap conversion is really the holy grail at this point in the industry.”

Nielson acknowledged the challenges and said it is critical that the U.S. government maintain the renewable fuel standard, which mandates U.S. production of 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel this year. But he was confident in the ability of the new enzyme to bring down costs.

“Right now it’s no longer a question of enzyme costing,” Nielson said. “It’s much more a question of the capital costs and then the raw material, the feedstock costs. Those are the two main issues that are left to work on now.”