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28

Lab Times

5-2016

Analysis

Fotolia/freshidea

Propelled by this successful break-

through, the group is planning to continue

looking for new (hyper)thermophilic en-

zymes. After all, thermoacidophilic micro-

organisms, largely Archaea, are a virtually

unexplored source.

This approach may, however, bring a

new set of problems, as, although these or-

ganisms are known for their peculiar sta-

bility and high catalytic conversion, they’re

very difficult to grow in the lab. Metagen-

omics may be able to give a helping hand to

identify novel enzymes specific for the deg-

radation of a particular compound of inter-

est, without the need for time-consuming

and low efficient isolation in the lab. This

approach may even spot new biocatalysts

and enzyme cocktails for the conversion of

lignocellulosic biomasses.

As good as fossil fuels?

All these improved technologies de-

scribed above are essential to cut down

costs associated with second generation

biofuels production. Particularly, as Boer-

jan and Melin defend, any development to-

wards using the entire biomass in the bio-

refinery process will greatly enhance effi-

ciency. Many would say this is the only way

biofuels are ever going to be competitive

with fossil fuels. Reality is that there is still a

long way to go on the cost front, as “current

oil prices smash the competition”, says Fer-

nando Reboredo, from the University of Lis-

bon in Portugal. Second generation biofuels

are still extraordinarily expensive compared

with oil from the Persian Gulf.

“The other consequence of low prices

was seen in the declaration of bankrupt-

cy of several companies dedicated to bio-

fuels, despite the huge amounts of subsidies

from the public sector,” continues Rebore-

do. “The research on biofuels will continue,

no doubt about that, but the competitive-

ness of cellulosic ethanol vis-a-vis gasoline

is strongly affected by current oil prices.”

It will be interesting to follow oil pric-

es over the upcoming years. If the prices

start going up, it may be biofuel’s opportu-

nity to become more appealing. However,

“countries from the Persian Gulf are aware

of this fact and clearly understood that high

oil prices will accelerate the replacement of

oil by biofuels or the appearance of more

efficient cars (hybrids for example),” says

Reboredo.

Low oil prices hinder adoption

Over the long term, however, if oil pric-

es remain low as predicted by the World

Bank in 2015, investments in biofuel pro-

duction are likely to fall. Persuading taxpay-

ers to divert large amounts of money to de-

velop renewable energies may prove to be

challenging, especially in countries with an

economy still struggling to gain momentum

after an economic crisis.

Second generation biofuels may no

longer compete with food crops but they

still require great investments and large ex-

tensions of land, in order to be commercial-

ly feasible. To come away from land use al-

together, researchers are developing a new

wave of biofuels around algae and bacteria,

nicknamed third generation biofuels.

With a productivity per hectare poten-

tially much higher than what any plant can

offer, these simple organisms are becoming

very popular with research groups around

the world to develop new biofuel tech-

nologies. This approach still needs many

years of work but it’s not impossible to im-

agine algal and bacterial “bio-factories”

able to produce fuel, lipids, carbo-

hydrates or other valuable chemi-

cals, such as renewable bioplastics

or polyalcohol.

At time zero

According to Roberto Bassi,

from the University of Verona in It-

aly, there has been a lot of atten-

tion to the development of photo-

bioreactors, but what the field re-

ally needs at the moment is to fo-

cus on the process of exploring mi-

croalgal strains. “Domestication

of wheat took 10,000 years before

the present production level was

reached. With algae, we are at time

0 of domestication.”

The researcher knows wild type

strains will never be able to grow

in a photobioreactor in levels that

are economically viable for the pro-

duction of biofuel. In natural condi-

tions, algae will simply shut down

when exposed to intense light to

avoid oxidative damage. From the

algae’s point of view, this makes perfect

sense. Their top priority is to survive, not

maximise photosynthetic efficiency. Over

millions of years of evolution, these organ-

isms have developed extremely clever ways

to dissipate excess energy just to be on the

safe side. For biofuel production, howev-

er, this means low densities and low yields.

Impossible project

For Bassi, “many solutions are out

there in some organisms that have evolved

by adapting to very special environments.

We just need to learn from these solutions

and engineer algae accordingly”. With this

in mind, their first approach could not be

more daring, as the team is aiming to im-

prove photosynthesis. “Every time I dis-

cussed the possibility of improving pho-

tosynthesis, I was faced with scepticism:

‘photosynthesis is perfect and cannot be

improved’ was the answer I had from sev-

Genetically modifying tress to produce less lignin could be one solution

to the biofuel problem.