The first generation of biofuels was relatively easy to produce. Plants produce their own concentrated stores of energy in seeds or tubers, and biofuels simply tapped into those, taking oils from seeds and ethanol from the sugars in tubers. But such crops compete directly with food for agricultural resources, and after the initial enthusiasm, it became clear that the quantities of fuel needed to make a difference would make serious inroads into food security.
Now scientists are looking at the entire plant as a source of biofuels.
"The next generation will either use byproducts, like wheat straw, or it will be grown where it won't compete with food," says Alf Game, Science Manager and Deputy Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at the British Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). "And that doesn't have to be land -- one of the most promising sources is algae."
The British Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is administering the largest ever U.K. public investment in bio-energy research. The money is being shared between six groups of researchers throughout Britain who are working on different aspects of the problem to develop the next generation of biofuels.
"The Sustainable Bio Energy Centre is a virtual center of six teams led from five different universities and institutes that are working on different aspects of the problem," he says. "It's not like a pipeline, where each of the teams feeds into the next. What we have are exemplars, models or patterns to be copied, of what can be done at different stages of the pipeline."
Game’s job has been to lead the conception and construction of the centre so that it keeps developing towards the future. Fortunately, there's plenty of material available for research and development: waste from agriculture or the food-processing industry, bracken, various grasses, coppiced willow or poplar trees.
"A main interest of the research is to find useful ways to break down lignins and cellulose," Game explains.
Cows and termites already do it, but they have complicated digestive systems with lots of different microbes. There is an insect, though, that is attracting special attention.
"A tiny marine wood-boring crustacean called the gribble has a sterile gut and employs very few enzymes to digest the lignins," says Game. "One of our projects is to see if we can understand how these work, to replicate this in industrial processing."
Other projects are working on improving biomass crops, breaking down the materials and turning them into usable fuels. Altogether, there are 15 universities and institutes and 15 industrial partners involved.