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EU project seeks to turn renewable materials into biofuel

7 October 2010

The Institute of Food Research, an Institute of BBSRC, is a partner in a project, funded by the European Union, which is looking for new ways of turning renewable materials into bioethanol. The project aims to discover enzymes from microorganisms, and use them to develop a biotechnological method of producing renewable fuels on an industrial scale.

A Europe-wide project is looking for new ways to turn renewable materials into biofuels. A consortium of research institutes, universities and industrial partners is using spruce chips from paper-making, wheat straw from farming and waste bran from milling as potential sources for fermentation by microorganisms to produce bioethanol, and is discovering new enzymes that could help carry out this process.

Wheat straw, spruce chips and wheat bran are all considered as waste materials from different industries, and are found in great abundance across Europe. A major constituent of them is lignocellulose, a complex mixture of carbohydrate molecules bound to lignin, the component that forms the basis of wood. Lignocellulose is what gives trees and plants their strength, and durability, and it is these properties that have held back the exploitation of lignocellulosic materials for biofuel production. The molecular nature of lignocellulose makes it resistant to the actions of microorganisms that could otherwise convert it to simple sugar molecules needed to make biofuels.

The new EU-funded project, known as DISCO, is searching for microorganisms that can degrade the lignocellulosic material. Microorganisms obtain their energy from breaking down the complex molecules in nature and turning them into simpler sugars and further to energy. The DISCO project is hoping to find species of microorganisms which have evolved the highly specialised ability to break down the resistant lignocellulose material.

Libraries of microorganisms are a key resource for the research community, and the DISCO project is making full use of them. For example, the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BUTE), a partner in the DISCO project, holds a library of over 4000 different microorganisms obtained from a multitude of different sources. From these a number of promising candidates for lignocellulosic enzyme activity have already been indentified and are being further characterised in the labs of other DISCO project partners.

"We're looking to nature to find answers to the problem of efficiently generating next-generation biofuels from renewable sources, in this case from abundant waste materials from farming and industry," said Professor Kristiina Kruus, of the Technical Research Centre (VTT) of Finland, who are leading the project. "That answer could literally be lying in the soil, in an undiscovered and uncharacterised microorganism."

Within the DISCO project, the Institute of Food Research, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, has been involved in the selection of the most appropriate starting materials and developing the most efficient physical and chemical pre-treatments.

The overall aim of the project is to end up with a cocktail of microorganism-derived enzymes that can simultaneously breakdown the complex lignocellose into simple sugars, and enable yeast co-fermentation to produce bioethanol. Initially a pilot scale plant will be developed. However, the starting materials, wheat straw, bran and spruce, are found in abundance throughout Europe as waste materials, so it is hoped that the DISCO project will lead to full scale plants producing biofuels across the continent.

The project is funded under the 'Food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology' Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).



BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Andrew Chapple, JIC Press office

tel: 01603 251490

Zoe Dunford, JIC Press office

tel: 01603 255111

Prof. Kristiina Kruus, Project Co-ordinator

tel: +3582 0722111