New Enzyme Could Make Cellulosic Ethanol Competitive With Fossil Fuels

Source: Todd Woody • Forbes  • Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2012

Efforts to create a market for cellulosic ethanol in the U.S. veered into the realm of the absurd last month when companies faced fines of $6.8 million for failing to meet a 2011 federal quota to blend 6.6 million gallons of the renewable fuel into oil and diesel supplies.

The problem? Though that’s but a drop in the gas tank compared to the some 180 billion gallons of petroleum fuel consumed annually in the U.S., there was virtually no cellulosic ethanol to be had due to technological and commercial challenges, not the least being the high cost of producing the fuel made from non-food crops and agricultural, wood and municipal waste.

That may be about to change. On Wednesday, Danish industrial enzyme maker Novozymes, unveiled a new high-efficient enzyme – called Cellic CTec3 – it says will break down corn husks, switchgrass and other feedstocks into sugars to make cellulosic ethanol at a lower cost.

“The enzyme had been one of the key hurdles in this as they had been too costly,” Poul Ruben Anderson, a Novozymes vice president, said in an interview. “With Cellic CTec3 we cracked the code. It’s one-and-a-half times better and you will only need one fifth the amount compared to competing enzymes.”

That means cellulosic ethanol could be produced for as little as $2 a gallon, Anderson says, making the renewable fuel competitive with corn ethanol and gasoline.

A few years ago enzymes accounted for half the cost of a gallon of cellulosic ethanol, according to Anderson. He says with Cellic CTec3 enzymes share of that cost will decline from the current 25% to 20%.

Novozymes says 50 kilograms of Cellic CTec3 will produce one ton of ethanol made from biomass compared to the 250 kilograms of competing enzymes – such as those made by DuPont – needed to distill the same amount of fuel.

“For a typical plant you only need a few truckloads a week,” says Anderson.

Novozymes’ initial customers for Cellic Ctec3 – Fiberight of the U.S. and M&G Group of Italy – will begin using the enzyme this year.

Good thing. The federal quota for cellulosic ethanol goes up to 8.65 million gallons for 2012.