The beginning of 2009 saw the UK’s largest ever public investment in bioenergy research. The new £27million Sustainable Bioenergy Centre brings together research projects from several universities across the country, with The University of Nottingham receiving the bulk of the funding. Impact Science caught up with Professor Greg Tucker, from the Division of Nutritional Biochemistry, who told us more about the project.
“When biofuels were being produced on a small scale it was a very exciting prospect, but then people realised exactly how much fuel you would have to produce,” Professor Tucker told Impact. That was when the barrage of bad press about biofuels began. The problem is that biofuel crops compete with land for food production. But we haven’t seen the end of biofuels yet. “The idea here is to generate what we call second generation fuels,” Tucker explained.
These fuels will be made from non-food crops such as willow, which can be grown on land unsuitable for growing food. Alternatively they could be made from the inedible parts of food crops. For example, when the grain from wheat is used to produce flour or cereal the straw part is leftover. The challenge is to work out a way of fermenting these leftover bits to ethanol which can then be used as a combustible fuel.
There are two main steps involved in making plant material into fuel. “First you’ve got to break it up and then you’ve got to have microbes that can utilise the material.” Physical and chemical processes are currently being tested to see what will “break (the material) down in to a kind of soup that the microbes can ferment.”
The sugar and starch parts of plants can be fermented to ethanol relatively easily, (the process is similar to that used in beer making) but these are also the parts that we can eat. The inedible left over bits are made of a tougher substance called cellulose. The project that Professor Tucker is involved in will test different strains of yeast, in order to find those which are best at fermenting cellulose. Ethanol is a by product of this fermentation process and can be mixed with petrol to make biofuel.
It is hoped that the five year project based in Nottingham will come up with the laboratory based technologies and then industry will put these into practice. If the government target is reached then 10% of all fuel used in the UK will be biofuel by the year 2020. Professor Tucker told Impact, “with the science at the moment I think it’s feasible that these secondary products will be on the market by then.”