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Transportation fuels of the future - Nottingham leads the way

Fruit and veg may be good for you but in 10 years time we could be replacing fossil fuels and helping to save our planet by using the inedible bits that we throw away to run our cars, boats and planes.

The University of Nottingham is to lead the way in the development of sustainable bioenergy fuels — Ethanol and Butanol. These sustainable bioenergy fuels use non-food crops, such as willow, industrial and agricultural waste products and inedible parts of crops, such as straw, so do not take products out of the food chain.

The University of Nottingham is leading two of six research projects being run by the national £27m BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre which was announced in London today — January 27 2009. This will be the biggest ever single UK public investment in bioenergy research. The centre has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Experts in microbiology and brewing science at The University of Nottingham will be leading the two five-year research programmes.

Katherine Smart, Professor of Brewing Science in the School of Biosciences, and a world leading fermentation scientist, will lead a team of researchers hoping to develop yeast capable of breaking down plant cell walls. Scientists will then be able to break down the inedible and unusable parts of plants such as the skin and stalks to produce ethanol. They will be collaborating with University of Bath, University of Surrey, BP, Bioethanol Ltd, Briggs of Burton, British Sugar, Coors Brewers, DSM, Ethanol Technology, HGCA, Pursuit Dynamics, SABMiller and Scottish Whisky Research Institute.

Professor Katherine Smart said: “The government is committed to producing replacement transport fuels. We can already buy petrol with five per cent ethanol in it but this is imported and it is important that Britain has strong energy security. Our fuel will be produced through materials which currently end up in landfill or simply go to waste. The challenge is to break down the toughest part of the plant, unlock the sugars, and by developing the very best yeast find an extremely efficient way of converting these sugars into ethanol.”

The green tops of carrots, straw that is currently ploughed back into the ground, wood shavings, the husks from barley grains, even the stalks from grapes can be used to produce ethanol.

The bacteria that produce butanol belong to an ancient group of bacteria called Clostridium.

Nigel Minton, a professor of Applied Molecular Microbiology, and a world expert in the genetic modification of Clostridium bacteria, will be developing a process for the large scale production of butanol by developing microbes capable of converting plant waste into this biofuel.

Butanol has significant advantages over ethanol. It has a higher energy content, is easier to transport, can be blended with petrol at much higher concentrations and even has potential for use as an aviation fuel

Professor Minton said: “We really are focussed on the holy grail of biofuel research — developing bacteria that are able to convert non-food, plant cell wall material into a superior petrol replacement, butanol. If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said it was not possible. However, my team have now developed some world beating technologies which will allow us to generate the Clostridium strains required.”

The research will be carried out in collaboration with Newcastle University and TMO Renewables Ltd.

Researchers from across the scientific spectrum — chemists, engineers, microbiologists, mathematicians and fermentation scientists — will be involved in the two research programmes.

Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, said: "Investing £27 million in this new centre involves the single biggest UK public investment in bioenergy research. The centre is exactly the sort of initiative this country needs to lead the way in transforming the exciting potential of sustainable biofuels into a widespread technology that can replace fossil fuels.

“The expertise and resources of The University of Nottingham makes it well placed to make a valuable contribution to the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre and help to make sustainable, environmentally-friendly bioenergy a reality."

The £27m BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre has been launched to provide the science to underpin and develop the important and emerging UK sustainable bioenergy sector.

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is focussed on six research hubs of academic and industrial partners, based at each of the Universities of Cambridge, Dundee and York and Rothamsted Research and two at The University of Nottingham. Another seven universities and institutes are involved and 15 industrial partners across the hubs are contributing around £7m of the funding.

The Centre’s research activities will encompass many different stages of bioenergy production, from widening the range of materials that can be the starting point for bioenergy to improving the crops used by making them grow more efficiently to changing plant cell walls. The Centre will also analyse the complete economic and environmental life cycle of potential sources of bioenergy.

Currently the fuels we use to provide electricity or to run cars and other vehicles is derived from coal, oil and gas. Their use is a major contributor to global warming through the production of carbon dioxide. And it is projected that in 50 years time these fossil fuels will be exhausted. So the search is on to find more environmentally friendly and renewable systems for producing liquid fuels to run cars and other vehicles.

Emma Thorne | alfa
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