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DSM announces breakthrough in technology for second generation biofuels

Heerlen, NL, 30 Jun 2010 15:15 CEST

Royal DSM N.V., the global Life Sciences and Materials Sciences company headquartered in the Netherlands, today announces a major breakthrough in the technology to produce second generation biofuels. This breakthrough will help second generation biofuels to become more cost effective and to become a viable alternative to both first generation biofuels and conventional fossil fuels.

Second generation biofuels are manufactured from agricultural residues or specially cultivated energy crops that do not compete with the food chain because they can be grown on land that is deemed less suitable for food production. By enabling second generation processes the biofuels industry will be able to greatly improve its sustainability as it continues to grow and replace fossil based fuels.

DSM’s breakthrough comes as a result of two separate innovations, the first of which relates to its enzyme technology. By focusing its research on a fungal organism that typically thrives in compost heaps or on fallen trees, the company has identified enzymes that are able to break down biomass into its constituent sugars much more efficiently compared to products and prototype formulations available in the market today.

The advantage of these new enzymes lies not only in their ability to break down biomass into sugars more effectively than conventional enzymes, but also in the fact that they are able to function at higher temperatures. These unique properties enable a lower enzyme dosage, better contamination control during fermentation, increased feedstock loading, reduced energy consumption and shorter processing time.

DSM’s second innovation lies in its new advanced yeast technology. Microorganisms such as yeasts or bacteria are essential to the biofuel production process as they are needed to convert the fermentable sugars generated from the biomass into ethanol, today’s most widely used biofuel. There are two primary classes of fermentable sugars that are liberated from cellulosic biomass during hydrolysis, six carbon sugars and five carbon sugars. Typically these microorganisms only consume six carbon sugars resulting in significantly reduced levels of efficiency in second generation processes.

Through classical strain improvement combined with metabolic engineering DSM has developed an advanced yeast strain that is capable of converting all the major sugar components found in biomass (both six carbon and five carbon sugars) to ethanol. It has been estimated that, taking a mixed sugar fermentation as an example, the overall ethanol yield using DSM’s advanced yeast can be improved by up to 100% as compared to the yield of standard yeasts used today.

The combination of these two innovations will result in greatly improved process economics and productivity for second generation biofuel producers coupled with the sustainability benefits derived from the use of second generation feedstocks. The investment bank UBS recently estimated that second generation bioethanol will become the main transportation fuel over the coming decade, with a market valued at US$80 billion annually by 2022.

John Monks, Business Director Bio-Conversion Solutions at DSM commented: “By leveraging our century-long heritage in industrial biotechnology, we have been able to develop highly innovative conversion solutions for the emerging second generation biofuels industry. DSM holds a unique position in this field, and among our industry peers, based upon our ability to creatively combine enzyme and yeast technologies in an integrated way. This places DSM firmly at the forefront of new technologies that will enable the sustainable production of second generation biofuels, which will likely become the default transportation fuel of the future. I’m extremely proud of DSM’s achievements to date in this field and look forward to being able to announce further innovations from our programs that support future generations of bioethanol.”

DSM’s approach to market development and business model for second generation biofuels is also innovative. Rather than opting for the classic industry model of remotely producing and bulk selling enzymes and yeasts, DSM is working with customers and partners to develop more localized, on-site production. The company views this approach as the most sustainable in the long run, because it bypasses long and expensive global supply chains and to truly integrate conversion technology into the biofuel process itself.