The first trials of a new approach for the production of ethanol from lignocellulose have taken place at a pilot plant at Örnsköldsvik in Sweden. The plant (owned by two Swedish universities and operated by SEKAB E-TECHNOLOGY), is central to a study funded by the EU, the ‘NILE’ project. The study aims to extend the range of sources from which ethanol may be made beyond sugar cane, sugar beet and corn to materials that are less expensive to obtain, result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and do not compete for land with food crops. Typically, they include straw, soft woods (like spruce), and wood residues. Having previously used dilute acid to break down the lignocellulose, the ‘SEKAB’ team has now tested enzymatic hydrolysis, which promises a greater yield at lower cost. “Enzymatic hydrolysis poses many challenges and our main goal is to have a complete and robust process“ explained Maria Edlund, the co-ordinator of the NILE project at SEKAB. “It’s early days yet. Our next trial run will take place in March 2007. Between now and then, we will continue working with process improvements.” This progress in the NILE project comes in a month where the US has increased its rhetoric on biofuels. Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council and top economic adviser to the Bush administration told the Financial Times that a “huge opportunity” existed for cellulosic ethanol, which could ultimately provide five times the quantity of fuel derived from corn. The administration has earmarked 250 M USD of research for the area. Royal Dutch Shell and BP are each in partnership with biotech companies to develop the technology.
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