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STYRIA, AUSTRIA, August 30, 2012 /24-7PressRelease/ -- "Fuel instead of food", is currently a common question - although this need not be. The first generation of biofuels is mostly made of corn, wheat or sugarcane. But that's not exactly the ideal solution. Biofuels of the 2nd generation are made of agricultural waste - from wood chips, straw or specially cultivated "energy crops". The Austrian competence centre acib (Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology) has found ways to make these renewable sugar resources available for industry and for the production of biofuels.
The enzymes that are used are called cellulases. They can cleave cellulose and hemicellulose - both components of wood (besides lignin) - into small sugar molecules, explains Professor Christian Kubicek of the Technical University of Vienna. In the framework of the center of excellence acib, he works together with researchers in Graz and at an industrial partner's site on the access of new industrial sugars from renewable resources. The enzymes work like choppers, says Professor Anton Glieder, scientific director of acib, "the long cellulose chains are transported through the enzymes. Thereby, the enzyme cuts small sugar molecules off the comparatively huge cellulose chain, until the whole cellulose is digested into smaller sugars." The best enzymes for the process are produced using the fungus Trichoderma reesei, which normally grows on decaying wood residues. In the Styrian project "MacroFun" at Graz University of Technology the fungal enzymes are be improved by using the yeast Pichia pastoris to make the "molecular shredder" more robust, declares Glieder.
Admittedly, the general procedure is still extensive, says Kubicek. The plant remains or "energy crops" such as flower stalk grass (Miscanthus) or switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) must first be "unlocked" to separate the lignin and make the cellulose accessible. Then specially designed cellulases come into play and cleave the long cellulose chains into small sugars. These are finally converted - similar to the alcoholic fermentation in wine - from yeast to bioethanol, which can then be used for biofuels. The great advantage of this method: food remains completely unaffected and the carbon footprint looks a lot better.
How promising this type of sugar and subsequently biofuel production is, shows the fact that in Europe alone 400 million tons of wheat straw per year accumulate. To ensure a sustainable use, 30% of them remain on the field to regenerate the soil, but the enormous residue can be processed further. Actually, about 1 liter of bioethanol could be made from 5 kg of straw. The goal for acib is to raise the yield by optimization of the degrading enzymes and to make more yet unused sugar sources available for biofuel production. 2nd generation biofuels could be ready to use within 3 to 5 years, says Glieder.
The Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) is Europe's leading competence centre for industrial biotechnology. It is an alliance of seven Austrian universities and 27 industrial project partners such as BASF, DSM, Sandoz, Boehringer Ingelheim RCV, Jungbunzlauer, F. Hoffmann-LaRoche, Novartis, VTU Technology and Sigma Aldrich. acib is owned by the Universities of Innsbruck and Graz, Graz University of Technology, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna and Joanneum Research.
170 co-workers are actively doing research in more than 30 research projects. The budget amounts to about 60 million Euros until December 31, 2014. Public funding (58% of the budget is provided by the Austrian Research Funding Agency (FFG), the Standortagentur Ti-rol, the Styrian Business Promotion Agency (SFG) and the Technology Agency of the City of Vienna (ZIT).
The competence centre acib - Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology - is funded in the framework of the Austrian COMET programme (Competence Centers for Excellent Technolo-gies) by the Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth (BMWFJ), the Federal Ministry of Traffic, Innovation and Technology (bmvit) and the provinces af Styria, Vienna and Tyrol. The COMET programme is managed by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG.
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