ORLANDO (April 22, 2004)—A major milestone in industrial biotechnology has been achieved with the first commercial shipment of bioethanol. Unlike conventional ethanol, bioethanol is made not from grain, but from cellulosic biomass, such as wheat straw, sugar-cane bagasse, and corn stovers and stalks left over after harvesting. This green alternative fuel, compatible with current automobile engines, could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"The commercial use of industrial enzymes to convert agricultural biomass into clean motor fuel represents a key breakthrough in our ability to produce homegrown energy, reducing our reliance on foreign oil and providing new markets for agriculture biomass," said Brent Erickson, vice president of industrial and environmental biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "This breakthrough means we can grow our own fuel, and farmers could harvest two crops from every field—a grain crop and a biomass crop."
Using this technology, raw materials such as wood-product manufacturing residues, municipal solid waste and garden waste could supply more than 500 million dry tons of biomass—enough to make more than 50 billion gallons of ethanol, equivalent to approximately a quarter of current U.S. gasoline consumption. Another 10 to 15 billion gallons could be produced from corn stalks and husks and wheat straw, according to the Biotech 2003 report from Burrill & Co.
The commercial production breakthrough reported by a Canadian biotech company, Iogen Corp., involved using recombinant DNA-produced enzymes to break apart cellulose—the tough substance that gives plants their rigidity—to produce sugars. The sugars produced in such a biorefinery process are used to make greener versions of ethanol and plastics. Many members of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section are pursuing similar projects.
"This is just one environmentally friendly application of industrial biotechnology," said Erickson. "The benefits of industrial biotechnology are expanding, from boosting the cleaning power of laundry detergent to enabling manufacturers to make everyday products like paper, vitamins and textiles more efficiently and with a cleaner environmental footprint."
The full spectrum of industrial biotechnology applications is under discussion this week at the inaugural World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Orlando, featuring more than 100 speakers and four tracks of sessions on novel technologies, environmental impact and policy issues. The World Congress runs April 21–23 at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. For information, visit www.bio.org.
BIO represents more than 1,000 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in all 50 U.S. states and 33 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of health-care, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products.