According to various external sources, the global economy is expected to grow fourfold between now and 2050, with growth possibly even approaching tenfold in countries such as China and India. Unprecedented pressure on natural resources and the environment is inevitable if demand for fossil fuels is not reduced.
Breaking the CO2 emissions curve
First-generation bioethanol is associated with challenges related to use of food sources and the risk of increased use of fertilizers and deforestation if produced and applied inappropriately. We are aware of these challenges and as a result are actively participating in, for example, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuel in order to establish a regulatory framework to prevent such unintended effects.
First-generation bioethanol is able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30–70% compared to fossil fuels, mainly depending on the energy efficiency of the bioethanol plants. It is expected that second-generation bioethanol will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% compared to fossil fuels.
Bioethanol based on residues
Second-generation bioethanol is based on two broad categories of cellulose-rich feedstocks: (1) waste and agricultural residues (e.g., corn stover, bagasse, wood chips) and (2) dedicated energy crops (e.g., switchgrass). The process is more challenging, but the result is the same as for first-generation bioethanol: Enzymes convert the raw material into sugars, which can then be fermented into, among other things, bioethanol.
Today we are already supplying enzymes for second-generation bioethanol production to labs and pilot plants in the US, China, Europe, and Brazil. However, to make this a commercial business, the overall cost of the entire production process needs to be lower, including for enzymes. It is crucial that the key processes, namely pretreatment, hydrolysis, enzymes, and fermentation, become truly integrated. If not, yields and cost will not be optimized.
We will be ready with efficient enzymes for production of second-generation bioethanol on an industrial scale in 2010.
In the future there may be biorefineries that will be capable of producing compounds other than ethanol, for example solid energy products from cellulosic feedstock. The sugars produced from cellulose can also be used for production of chemicals, an area in which we are already active. To realize a future vision of biorefineries, the challenge of converting cellulose into fermentable sugars, using a biological process to convert the sugars into other compounds, must be overcome.
Making sustainable business
We believe that enzyme technology holds the key to making production of second-generation bioethanol commercially viable. Over the past eight years we have managed to reduce the enzyme production cost for second-generation bioethanol severalfold. Alongside improvements in the remaining process steps, we now believe that from 2010 it will be possible to produce second-generation bioethanol at a cost that makes it attractive to develop an industry. This will still be some way off current first-generation costs, but is a key step toward commercial viability.
We currently have more than 150 scientists working on conversion of biomass for second-generation bioethanol. It is the single largest research project ever for our company. We are investing heavily in this, not only because conversion of biomass may be one of tomorrow’s solutions, but also because it is an attractive business opportunity. If this opportunity unfolds and we are successful, it will change our business.
Government support necessary
Governments worldwide have already realized the range of benefits sustainable biofuels provide (e.g., improved energy security, greenhouse gas reductions in transportation, and job creation) and have decided to support further development and implementation.
Strong governmental support is needed to make conversion of biomass commercially viable and sustainable within the foreseeable future. Technologies need to be developed at an accelerated pace and this will only happen with the right market incentives, as market forces are not yet in place to ensure progress. And only government involvement can ensure that processes using conversion of biomass are optimized in terms of global CO2 footprint in order to build a sustainable future.
You can read more about Novozymes and biofuels in the "Sales and markets" section.