Biotechnology Advances and Effects on Biofuels Production

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Biodiesel car

Biodiesel are fuels made from renewables. Photo by Mejidori.

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory have performed a study on the effects that advances in biotechnology could have on biofuels production.

Biotechnology can help in obtaining better feedstock and creating a more efficient conversion processes, making the biofuel industry more sustainable and competitive.

Biofuels: First and Second Generation

Biofuels are fuels which are produced from biomass (for instance plants). Their production has increased remarkably in recent years, due to the necessity of developing fuels which did not derive from fossil sources.

Biofuels such as ethanol from starch/sugar, or biodiesel from vegetable oils, are generally referred to as first generation biofuels; they were the first biomass-derived fuels to be developed.

More recently, however, scientists have developed different fuels, which derive from non-edible biomasses; these are commonly referred to as second generation biofuels. Examples include ethanol made from cellulose and biodiesels made from algae.

Second Generation Biofuels: The Difficulties

Second generation biofuels have been becoming more and more important in recent years; indeed, cellulose biorefineries have been opened in countries such as the US, Brazil, China, Italy and Spain.

Despite this, however, biofuel production at an industrial level is still limited, due to the difficulties in converting the biomass into useful fuels.

In the case of ethanol derived from cellulose, for instance, the processing from stalks/stems is quite complex, requiring several stages. Similarly, biodiesels production from algae has great potential, but the process is not yet economically viable.

Biotechnology

Biotechnology can play a key role in manufacturing biofuels. Image by felixioncool.

The Role of Biotechnology

The key to overcoming these difficulties is progress and advances in biotechnology, which could make some aspects of the production processes easier; this could lead to viable and sustainable production of second generation biofuels.

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Knoxville, US) discuss this topic in detail in a perspective article published in Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining on the 14th of May 2015.

Biofuels Supply Chain

Like any other energy industry, biofuels production is linked to a supply chain network; elements of the chain include, for instance, the feedstock, the technology(ies) used for the conversion, etc. The researchers looked at the way possible future advances in biotechnology can benefit each step of this chain.

Considering the feedstock, for instance, biotechnology can help by improving the biomass yield; moreover, plants which are more resistant to unfavorable atmospheric conditions (i.e. droughts) could also be developed. Both these issues will lead to more competitive biofuels manufacture. Also, an increase in the biofuels production yield could be achieved with crops which contain more cellulose, and/or from which the cellulose conversion to fuel is easier.

Biofuel Products and By-Products

Biotechnology developments can also lead to better processes for biomass conversion into fuels in other ways. Indeed disciplines such as synthetic biology and metabolic engineering will help performing faster reactions, which will have a higher yield, and whose products will be purer.

The various phases of the production, however, are not the only aspects which have to be considered, as products and by-products will have an important role.

In fact the biofuels industry, like any other industry, generates by-products. It is important that scientists try to use technology to attempt to “tailor” the by-products as much as possible to our needs, and try to make the best possible use of the by-products we will have.

Distillers’ grain, for instance, is a by-product which is already used as an animal feed. With a larger biofuel industry, more grain will be available for this use; it is essential to know / understand the quality (i.e. nutritional value) of the distillers’ grain coming from each process, the possible presence of impurities, etc.

Algal cultivation

Algae can be used for biofuel production. Image by N Chadwick.

Policy and Economics

Further than biotechnology, energy policies will also be a crucial element in the future development of this industry.

The US Government, for instance, supported bioenergy production with programs such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS); the uncertainty and instability for the future, however, may compromise the investments in this area, and is slowing down the possible developments / advances.

Perspectives for the Future

As the demand for renewable energies grows, it is essential to understand which are the best strategies to develop this industry. Regarding second generation biofuels, biotechnology advances will surely play a key role; to what extent, however, is not completely predictable. According to the scientists who performed the study, more advanced biotechnology can be beneficial for biofuels production; over the next 10 years, they expect substantial progress in the conversion processes; for feedstock yield, on the other hand, longer times will be needed.”

Government policies and investment will also be determinant in making the industry more sustainable and competitive.

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