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Novozymes lands another biofuel deal

By From page A1 | January 24, 2013

Novozymes scientist Eric Abbate holds three beakers containing material that 
represents stages of converting raw corn roughage to ethanol using a process of 
pressure, temperature and enzymes. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Novozymes scientist Eric Abbate holds three beakers containing material that represents stages of converting raw corn roughage to ethanol using a process of pressure, temperature and enzymes. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Novozymes — the Danish-based biotech company with a research and development facility in Davis — has received another contract from the federal Department of Energy.

The new contract will see Novozymes continuing to work on new and more efficient enzymes for converting agricultural residues like corn stover — the stalks and leaves left over after the ears of corn have been harvested — into biofuel or ethanol that can be used to power cars and trucks.

The new $2.5 million contract with the Department of Energy is the third contract that Novozymes has received from the federal agency.  The contract probably will last two years, involving eight to 10 employees. The previous contracts were a $13.8 million project that ran from 2001 through 2005, and a $12.3 million project that ran from 2008 through 2012.

Sarah Teter, a UC Davis graduate who has been with Novozymes for more than 11 years, said the project involves “using the most up-to-date tools for sorting through genetic diversity quickly, and understanding which biograding enzymes are the most cost-effective.”

The ultimate goal is to bring down the cost of making biofuel from ag residues, and working with business partner Michigan Biotechnology Institute to create a commercial-scale plant to promote the technology.

Most existing ethanol in this country is produced from kernels of corn — the part of the plant that is used for animal feed. The federal contracts to Novozymes are geared around using enzymes to break down the cellulose in corn stover to create sugars that can in turn be converted into biofuel.

“We’re at a point where this industry is taking off,” Teter said. “It’s very exciting.”

Teter explained that the process starts with pretreatment of corn stover: “You take the stalks and make chunks out of it, and then the material is pretreated.”

This is where the partnership with MBI comes in. The Michigan company has a pretreatment technology known as ammonia fiber expansion that expands the fiber in corn stover, “which breaks up the biomass. It looks kind of like mud, less liquid-y than some other pretreatments,” Teter said.

“Then we take this really viscous mud slurry, and douse it with our enzymes. And our enzymes liquefy it, breaking those bonds between sugar molecules, so the sugar gets released. The enzymes can get in there and have access to the cellulose,” Teter added.

“Then the enzymes convert the treated biomass into sugars, and the sugars are fermented to create biofuels — and other chemicals that can go into other products.”

Teter said the important thing “is finding a way to allow biorefiners to produce advanced biofuels so that they can sell their fuel at a cost lower than the equivalent energy in petroleum-based gasoline — allowing biorefiners to make fuels at costs that are competitive with petroleum.”

And much as petroleum products are currently used to make plastics, paints and solvents, Teter foresees the day when biofuel derived from corn stover (rather than petroleum) could be used instead.

“By getting to sugar, you have a lot of possibilities,” she said. “We like to talk about making sugar the new oil.”

Corn stover is not the only form of biomass that is being evaluated. A company in Italy is using wheat straw, and an energy grass called arundo. In Brazil they have bagasse, the sugar cane after water extraction.

Novozymes has made several announcements over the past few years relating to enzymes used to create biofuels. Last October, the company launched an enzyme called Avantec, which allows ethanol producers to make more ethanol using less corn. Early-stage R&D for Avantec took place in Davis.

Last August, Novozymes entered into a joint R&D cooperation with BASF and Cargill to develop an industrial biotechnology-based production process for acrylic acid from renewable raw materials. Acrylic acid is used for production of super-absorbent polymers used in diapers and production of paint, coatings and adhesives.

In February, Novozymes released CTec3, an enzyme that enables cost-efficient conversion of biomass to ethanol, at a rate 1.5 times better than Novozymes’ previous product in that area. CTec3 also was developed in Davis.

Novozymes also appointed Alan Berry as the new managing director of the company’s Davis facility last summer.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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