It seems that not one week goes by without a new "breakthrough" in advanced biofuels (see Solar + Water + C02 = Diesel?).
While we are sanguine about the long-term prospects of advanced biofuels that do not compete with food sources (see Biofuels 2010: Spotting the Next Wave), in reality, there are a dearth of commercial projects out there.
In 2010, we hope to see the first second-generation cellulosic ethanol facility come online from Range Fuels (though there is skepticism over whether Range will actually be producing ethanol in 2010, as discussed in this blog post by Robert Rapier). As noted in recent posts (see EPA Issues Renewable Fuel Standards), cellulosic ethanol is behind the production schedule outlined under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. Originally, EISA required 100M gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be produced in 2010. This number has now been downgraded to 6.5 million.
Second-generation cellulosic ethanol is produced either from non-food sources (woody biomass, municipal solid waste, construction debris, energy crops, etc.) or the agricultural residues of food crops (e.g., corn stover or corn cobs). To the degree that cellulosic feedstocks are produced using marginal land (or no land at all), cellulosic ethanol is insulated from the "food vs. fuel" debate.
Most biomass contains complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides and lignin. When producing cellulosic ethanol, one first has to pre-treat the biomass to separate the lignin from the cellulose and hemi-cellulose. Once separated, the lignin can be burned, reducing the need for external energy sources to fuel the process, and providing economic and environmental benefits, as well.
Most cellulosic ethanol companies that are using bio-chemical methods require the use of expensive enzymes to breakdown the polysaccharides into simple sugars that can be further fermented into ethanol. While Novozymes and Genencor recently made a large splash by announcing that they had reduced enzymes to $0.50/gal (see Denmark Makes A Stab for Biofuels Greatness), enzymes still represent a first-order economic cost for cellulosic biofuel producers.
Which brings us to the announcement by the University of York and University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom that a crustacean called the "Gribble worm" is an idiot savant when it comes to transforming wood into sugars.
The Gribble worm is more known as a pest that eats the hulls of ships. It turns out the bacteria in its stomach produces the requisite enzymes that can break cellulose into simple sugars.
While the discovery of this worm is novel, the idea of using an organism to produce enzymes that breakdown C5 and C6 sugars is not.
Advanced pioneers like Mascoma, Amyris, LS9, and Qteros (see A Closer Look at the Q Microbe) are pursuing microbes that enable saccharification and fermentation to occur simultaneously.
Whether the Gribble worm's process is scalable is another issue, but such minor details do not seem to make it into the hyperbolic press releases announcing these 'discoveries.'