The Breakthrough for Biomass – and the Advanced Enzymes from Novozymes

The awareness about the need to get away from the oil-based society is by now widespread – and, for many reasons, alarmingly important.

And enzymes – a kind of protein which is generated by certain micro organisms developed to a highly advanced stake by among others a corporation from the tiny country called Denmark – is now about to challenge fossil fuels for real.

Among the advocacies for a bio-based society instead is the Danish corporation Novozymes. For very good reasons this stakeholder is out to propagate the biobased economy’s advantages and benefits – where the replacement for oil is sugar which can be turned into liquid fuel but also bio-based materials etc.

On a visit to Singapore last year Fleming Voetman, Head of Public Affairs at Novozymes, a world leader in bioinnovation, laid out their vision, where biofuel made from agricultural residues replaces oil. Fleming was invited speaker on technology trends at Designing Asia 2.0, the leading innovation network in Asia, arranged by Qi Global.

“Basing your society on oil is not wise; it comes with enormous strategic disadvantage,” he advised.

“But replacement is at hand from forestry and agriculture, and where Asia has a strategic advantage that will become even bigger in the future is the agricultural waste.”

And the environmental and economic advantages are convincing: Increased use of bioenergy is, when produced and used on a sustainable basis, the most important renewable energy option at present and expected to maintain that position during the first half of this century and likely beyond.

Biomass is a renewable and environmentally friendly alternative that can make a large contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time all climate-friendly energy options are needed to meet the world’s future energy needs.

Several developing countries have now in fact embarked on the path of employing second-generation biotechnologies, which will help tapping plant resources as energy crops in a major way.

In recent years, countries like China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, have begun to invest heavily in this, according to UNESCAP.

The dawning for biofuel
Bioenergy markets provide major business opportunities, environmental benefits, and rural development on a global scale, reports IEA Bioenergy, where biomass can make a very large contribution to the world’s future energy supply, ranging from 20% to 50%.

Biomass currently supplies about a third of energy in developing countries, according to UNESCAP.

“It is now increasingly realized that there is considerable potential for the modernization of biomass fuels to produce convenient energy carrier, such as electricity, gases and transportation fuels, while continuing to provide for traditional uses of biomass.”

And new technologies enable biomass fuel modernization and large-scale production.

Really, this is just the dawning for expected massive growth where the very first large-scale bio refineries are about to open in Italy and the U.S.

Production and use of biofuels are growing at a very rapid pace, where it is realistic to expect that the current contribution of bioenergy will increase considerably.

In a report from Novozymes it has been estimated that converting biomass into fuels, energy, and chemicals has the potential to generate upwards of $230 billion to the global economy by 2020.

“Definitely, a paradigm shift is starting,” Fleming Voetman confirms to ScandAsia. “We have known since the 1970’s how to make ethanol from sugar. But taking waste material is from a technological perspective so much more difficult to do. And there we have just had enormous breakthroughs in the last few years.”

The pivotal role of enzymes
And this is where the new generation of commercials enzymes, provided by Novozymes and others play a pivotal role in separating the sugar out from all the other stuff in waste materials like wheat straw, the corn stalk or the leftovers from sugar cane and palm oil etc.

This means that countries with booming economic growth, especially China and India can get away from their dependency on oil imports long-term and utilize biomass – which is anything they can grow in their fields or coming from forestry.

“We came out with something new in 2010 which we spent ten years and about 200 million US dollars of R&D on. Then the Chinese said immediately: ‘Perfect, now we believe the technology is ready’, wanting to stake on so called second-generation biofuels made from waste. And the Indian government is also very keen on doing that and we’re seeing the same response from the Malaysian and Thai government because they can see: we have an abundance of agricultural residue locally so we need to buy a little bit of know-how from novozymes. And not only that but we also have engineering companies which can build the facilities, so we can do the entire value chain.”

Bettering the environment
Asia is an “enormously important market” for Novozymes where they have been active for many years, including with huge enzyme production in China since the early 1990’s. By now they have R&D and sales and marketing there too while continuing to expand. Then there is a hub in Bangalore in India with an outsourcing centre, production and R&D, while they have sales offices in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

In his role, Fleming acts as an advocacy trying to get political advantages for Novozymes, where China is a great example: its government has a clear target to match the economic growth with the consumption of energy and resources, which fits well with Novozymes.

“What we do at the core is to produce more with less. At the same time the Indians have some of the same targets; wanting to have their own energy and with domestic production in India. Again Novozymes come in, so that means our interaction, our dialogue with the governments is extremely important for our growth rate.”

Novozymes’ solutions save energy and raw materials, and reduce waste. The result is higher quality, lower costs, lower CO2 emissions, and a better environment.

Saving the planet
In the bigger picture this is also about making a difference and preservation of the planet: that sustainability, caring for climate, economic growth and profitability can go hand in hand and where all of must partake.

“The Chinese have realised this for a long time, and for the benefit of China they want to grow but also in a sustainable way. That also means reducing their dependence on foreign oil, and their agriculture and their companies to become more efficient. And we are perfectly located to cater to those needs.”

As Novozymes’ strongest selling points Fleming mentions in priority order: “Definitely energy independence. Then it’s the creation of rural jobs and the environmental benefits. What countries are mostly concerned about is energy security.”

“We see the same within many other areas and that is an enormous business opportunity, not just for us, but in particular for many Scandinavian companies,” he says and adds:  “Then, we have some experience of course being part of the EU, about the Scandinavian tradition of caring about the environment and we can transfer that know-how so the Chinese can basically leapfrog into getting the same environmental standards that you have today in Europe and almost get this over night.”

To develop enzymes for production of bioenergy the Danish company received support from perhaps somewhat surprising quarters; namely the United States Department of Energy which asked and supported Novozymes to re-start the research.  Meanwhile, the EU gave only a tiny amount.

First refineries in 2013
The first commercial-scale bio-refineries in the U.S, and China, are due in 2013.

“Then I think you’ll see a ketchup effect where others will follow. The technology is pretty complicated and it’s not cheap to build the first ones but once these are up and running a lot of knowhow will have been gained. And we’ll continue with our R&D and bring down our cost and as the technology improves the overall cost will also go down,” Fleming predicts.

“But we are absolutely sure of this technology taking off. So it’s a question of sooner or later; if it does not fly in 2013 it will definitely do so in 2014. If massive scale does not come in 2015 it will soon thereafter, because the economics of this work very heavily into our favour in terms of the price of oil to waste material.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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