Scientists at the University of York have discovered a family of enzymes capable of degrading hard-to-digest biomass into basic sugars paving the way for second generation biofuels.
Results of the study led by Professor Paul Walton and Professor Gideon Davies have been published in the latest issue of the Nature Chemical Biology journal.
“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,” said Professor Walton.
First generation biofuels, though offering a viable greener alternative to fossil fuels, rely on crops containing easy-to-digest sugars, such as corn starch. Many experts have expressed concerns that these biofuels are competing over land use with food crops and put food sustainability at risk.
Second generation biofuels, on the other hand, could be produced from non-digestible biomass such as roots, plant stems, wood chops, or even cardboard waste and insect and crustacean shells. These biofuels would further utilise food production waste, complementing food production rather than competing over the resources.
However, until today, extraction of fuel from these hard-to-digest sources has been difficult and researchers have been struggling to find ways to efficiently break down these materials into their constituent sugars to allow fermentation.
Finally, the team from the University of York and the Aix-Marseille Université in Marseille, France, has identified a family of enzymes showing promising results. If proven effective, the discovery could open new avenues for sustainable biofuel production from waste biomass without putting food supply at risk.