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VTT launches large European cooperation project for developing manufacturing method for biofuel


Raw-material for liquid biofuel from agricultural and forestry waste

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has started a large European project, combining the forces of European research institutes and companies for developing the next generation of biofuel. The NEMO project, which has received funding of EUR 5.9 million from the EU, is aimed at developing manufacturing methods for liquid biofuel from agricultural and forestry waste, such as straws and wood chips.

Agricultural and forestry waste is mainly lignocellulose, which consists of sugars but in a form that makes them difficult to be used by microbes in the production of ethanol. The project develops enzymes that can be used to cut lignocellulose into sugar compounds suitable for fermentation. The objective is also to tailor the metabolism of microbes so that they can produce large volumes of ethanol out of the biomass sugars economically and efficiently. The project evaluates the suitability of the developed enzymes and yeast strains for industrial biofuel manufacturing processes.

The NEMO project (Novel high performance enzymes and micro-organisms for conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to bioethanol) will last four years, and develops the next, 2nd generation production technology for the utilisation of lignocellulose raw material in the production of ethanol. The cost-effective production of the next generation biofuel requires the technology to be developed further.

Currently, nearly all biofuel is produced using the 1st generation technology, which is mainly based on the use of sucrose contained in sugarcane or starch-based glucose contained in corn as raw material. Apart from the sugarcane, the current production methods are not energy efficient enough and their impact on reducing carbon dioxide emissions is not sufficient.

The production of ethanol consists of four stages: the pre-processing of the raw material, the conversion of carbohydrates from polymers into sugar, the fermentation of sugar into ethanol using microbes and the distillation of ethanol. Different technologies are being globally developed for pre-processing the raw material. The NEMO project focuses on the pre-processing methods, hydrolysing cellulose using enzymes and the fermentation of the created sugars using tailored microbes.

According to the project coordinator Merja Penttilä, Research Professor at VTT, yeasts are excellent production organisms, suitable for large scale industrial production. Using enzymes, sugars can be released gently from the lignocellulose so that the sugar solution is not too toxic to microbes.

Liquid biofuels need to contain carbon, which is obtained from renewable raw materials, i.e. biomass. This carbon is turned into the chemical compound ethanol and mixed within traffic fuel. In practice, fermentation is the most efficient method for manufacturing bioethanol.

In the project, VTT focuses on the development of efficient enzymes and yeast production organisms.

The EU has set a recommendation for its member states with the aim of replacing 5.75% of traffic fuel with biofuels by 2010 and a mandatory target of 10% renewable energy sources in traffic by 2020. As a result, it is necessary to develop new technology for securing the environmentally friendly and cost-effective production of bioethanol.

The total costs of the four-year NEMO project amount to EUR 8.2 million. The EU is financing the project with EUR 5.9 million.

The NEMO project coordinated by VTT has participants from a number of European research institutes and industrial producers of enzymes, ethanol and chemicals. The NEMO project members are: VTT (Finland), Lunds Universitet (Sweden), University of Helsinki, Universiteit Utrecht (the Netherlands), VIB (Belgium), Chalmers Tekniska Högskola Ab (Sweden), Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main (Germany), Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland), Universite de la Mediterranee D’aix-Marseille (France), Universita Degli Studi di Milano (Italy), Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (the Netherlands), Univerza V Ljubljani (Slovenia), Chemtex Italia srl (Italy), Dyadic Nederland BV (the Netherlands), Green Sugar GmbH (Germany), Sekab E-Technology (Sweden), Syngenta Crop Protection AG (Switzerland) and Roal Oy (Finland).