Canadian researchers look to improve biofuel production

Researchers from Ontario and Israel are studying a process found in nature to try and improve the production of cost-effective biofuel.
Researchers are looking to find a way to replicate a multi-complex enzyme that will aid in breakdown of biomass, which is generally plants and trees used in the production of biofuel.

Researchers from Ontario and Israel are trying to replicate a process found in nature to make the production biofuel more cost-effective.

"The complex — cellulusome — is the most highly efficient degrader of biomass known to man," Steven Smith of Queen's University told CBC News.

The researchers from Queen's University, along with other scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, are hoping that by studying this natural multi-enzyme complex they will be able to replicate it and use it in the production of biofuels.

Biomass refers to organic material, usually from plants and trees, which can be processed or "degraded" to make biofuel such as ethanol. The fuel's energy is result of biological carbon fixation.

"These bacteria do an excellent job of that, and so trying to be able to replicate that would be advantageous for biofuel production," Smith said.

He added that it would also open up the possibility of using different sources of biomass for degradation, like garbage and other kinds of waste.

Using X-ray based techniques, Smith and his team were able to see the shapes of the cellulosomal protein complex. This helped them understand where every atom is located in the bacteria.

"Up until six years ago or so, there was a reasonable amount of information known on what the individual components look like," Smith said. "What we're trying to do is take those individual puzzle pieces and build them back out to the much larger, native, full-length complex."

If they achieve this, it will mean that they will possibly be able to design more efficient synthetic complexes so that the enzymes can work as efficiently as possible.

Many companies already generating bioethanol — an alcohol made by fermentation — are using enzymes that might be found in the complex, according to Smith.

However, these companies add those enzymes during the fermentation process individually. Smith says that it's been shown that if the enzymes are assembled into a complex first they will work together more efficiently and can result in a better breakdown of the biomass.