The advanced biofuels industry has so far failed to ramp up beyond pilot and demonstration projects. Financing has been a problem for startups trying to build commercial-scale facilities. But the primary hurdle for the industry has been reducing production and feedstock costs enough to make their product competitive with corn-based ethanol and ultimately fossil fuels.
Industrial enzyme maker Novozymes said this week it has developed a super-efficient enzyme that could help biofuel producers reach that elusive "commercially viable" goal. The so-called Cellic CTec3 enzyme -- like other enzymes on the market -- is used to break down biomass pulp -- from corn husks, wheat straw, switchgrass and other nonfood crops -- into sugar which can then be fermented into fuels, feed and chemicals. Traditionally, advanced biofuel producers have to use large amounts of expensive enzymes to get the desired end result.
Novozymes says its new enzyme has a better biomass-to-ethanol conversion rate and biofuel producers need only one-fifth of the enzyme dose compared to its competitors, including main rival DuPont's Genencor unit. This efficiency improvement is enough to bring the cost of cellulosic ethanol in line with gasoline and corn-based ethanol. A Novozymes spokeswoman told me the enzyme could bring cellulosic ethanol costs down to $2 to $2.50 a gallon for its biofuel customers.
The advanced biofuels industry has to find ways to cuts costs if it ever hopes to scale up commercially and meet federal mandates. Cellulosic ethanol production was supposed to hit 500 million gallons in 2012. Instead, production will be closer to 8.65 million gallons — or 0.006 percent — far short of production volume mandated by Congress, according to figures released in December by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s likely that even the 8.65 million production target won’t be met this year. As of October, not a single gallon of qualifying cellulosic ethanol was produced, according to the EPA.
Novozymes has agreements to supply the new enzyme to U.S. producer Poet for its cellulosic ethanol Project Liberty facility and to M&G Group for its Crescentino, Italy plant, which is expected to open this year. Fiberight is expected to use the enzyme to produce 6 million gallons per year at its Blairstown, Iowa plant, slated to open next year. Check out the map provided by Novozymes below to see what cellulosic ethanol plants are expected to come online this year and in 2013. The map includes plants that are not using the company's new enzyme.