Scientists hail breakthrough to a new generation of biofuels made from waste

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SCIENTISTS at a Yorkshire university say they have made a major breakthrough in creating a new type of sustainable biofuel.

Researchers from the Department of Chemistry at York University have discovered a way of breaking down potential sources of energy from plant stems, wood chips and cardboard waste.

Academics have found a family of enzymes that can degrade these “hard-to-digest biomass” items into sugars.

‘First generation’ biofuels have already made an impact in the search for renewable and energy sources through the generation of bioethanol manufactured from easy-to-digest food sources such as corn starch.

But the resulting need for energy crops is using up valuable arable land threatening food price stability and limiting the amount of biofuel that can be made in this way.

Academics says the use of ‘difficult-to-digest’ sources, such as plant stems, wood chips, cardboard waste or insect shells offers a potential solution. Fuel made from these sources is known as ‘second generation’ biofuels. Finding a way of breaking down these sources into their constituent sugars to allow them to be fermented through to bioethanol is regarded as the ‘Holy Grail’ of biofuel research.

The new research was led by Professor Paul Walton and Professor Gideon Davies at York and also involved Professor Bernie Henrissat, of CNRS, Aix-Marseille Université, France. It opens up major new possibilities in the production of bioethanol from sustainable sources.

By studying the biological origins and the detailed chemistry of the enzyme family, the researchers have shown that nature has a wide range of methods of degrading biomass which humankind can now harness to produce sustainable biofuels.

Professor Walton said: “There’s no doubt that this discovery will have an impact on not only those researchers around the globe working on how to solve the problems associated with second generation biofuel generation, but –more importantly – also on the producers of bioethanol who now have a further powerful tool to help them generate biofuel from sustainable sources such as waste plant matter.”