In search of tomorrow's biofuels

Paul Boughton

Once seen as the solution for climate change, biofuels have since come under attack because of the use of fertile land to grow core biofuel crops. Now teams are developing biofuels that really could help save the planet

The British Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is administering the largest ever UK public investment in bio-energy research.

The money is being shared between six groups of researchers throughout Britain who are working on different aspects of the problem to develop the next generation of biofuels.

Alf Game, Science Manager and Deputy Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at the BBSRC, is the pivot around whom the development of the program has revolved.

"I'm not a good research scientist," he admits. "Never was." Instead, Game has made a career of enabling the research of others, working for one scientific administrative body after another. And it's no different this time.

"The Sustainable Bio Energy Centre is a virtual centre of six teams led from five different universities and institutes that are working on different aspects of the problem," he says. "It's not like a pipeline, where each of the teams feeds into the next; what we have are exemplars, models or patterns to be copied, of what can be done at different stages of the pipeline."

Game's job has been to lead the conception and construction of the centre so that it keeps developing towards the future.

The first generation of biofuels was relatively easy to produce. Plants produce their own concentrated stores of energy in seeds or tubers, and biofuels simply tapped into those, taking oils from seeds and ethanol from the sugars in tubers. But such crops compete directly with food for agricultural resources, and after the initial enthusiasm, it became clear that the quantities of fuel needed to make a difference would make serious inroads into food security.

Now scientists are looking at the entire plant as a source of biofuels.

"The next generation will either use by-products, like wheat straw," says Game, "or it will be grown where it won't compete with food. And that doesn't have to be land; one of the most promising sources is algae."

There is plenty of material available, including: waste from agriculture or the food-processing industry, bracken, various grasses, coppiced willow or poplar trees.

"A main interest of the research is to find useful ways to break down lignins and cellulose," Game explains. Cows and termites already do it, but they have complicated digestive systems with lots of different microbes. There is an insect, though, that is attracting special attention.

"A tiny marine wood-boring crustacean called the gribble has a sterile gut and employs very few enzymes to digest the lignins," says Game. "One of our projects is to see if we can understand how these work, to replicate this in industrial processing."

Other projects are working on improving biomass crops, breaking down the materials and turning them into usable fuels. Altogether there are 15 universities and institutes and 15 industrial partners involved.

There are also environmental engineers working on energy efficiency. "It doesn't make sense to transport wood around the country to huge refineries," Game points out, "so processing will have to be done near the source."

That will introduce a useful additional source of income to rural economies.

"Biofuels won't totally replace petrochemicals," Game admits, "but they could make a difference. There are estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of Britain's fuel needs could be grown in Britain."

The role of Alf Game and his colleagues is to help the scientists work together to produce more than the sum of their individual efforts. "What I like about this job is that we can help scientists do better science," he says. "We can add value to what they do and make a difference in a project that will make a difference in society."

Many reasons, most of them environmental or climate-change related, lie behind the robust development in bioethanol and biodiesel production in recent years.

As an example, more than half of all passenger cars in Brazil are powered by bioethanol or biodiesel.

To meet the challenges imposed by this trend, Trelleborg has developed more resistant sealing materials that will function better in the harsher operating environment created by biofuels.

The next generation of compounds is proven in tests focusing on hardness, stress-strain, and volume-swelling as well as the combined effect of high pressures and biofuels.

"What I find fascinating in this job is the chance to foster, manage and coordinate large-scale projects and develop new scientific communities," says Alf Game, Science Manager and Deputy Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at the Biotechnology and Biology Science Research Council in Britain. "This is something new in biology," he says. "Biologists have tended to work on their own small-scale projects, and it was only with the Human Genome Project that the nature of biological research began to change.

"In this programme, scientists co-own the larger problems," Game continues. "They work with engineers, chemists and social scientists. We're hoping to add process engineers as well, but we'd need partners for that.

"We're training and developing students, as well as developing a new way of thinking about the problems," he says. "This includes creating a model for identifying the spaces on the research pipeline. We'll then have skills and ideas available to fill those space."

The British Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is one of seven Research Councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK). It is funded from the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

BBSRC's current budget is £450m. It supports a total of around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes in the UK. It invests a total of around £15m a year in collaborative research and research training with industrial partners. This includes support for collaborative projects instigated jointly by researchers in academic and industrial laboratories, as well joint funding from BBSRC and industrial consortia to support research projects in the science base.

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