The Forefront of Enzyme Production

As important as enzymes are to the production of ethanol, only a handful of companies specialize in their production. EPM visits with Novozymes, one of the world's leading enzyme producers, to take a look at the future of enzyme production.
By Kris Bevill | May 04, 2009
It's hard to believe that the future of cellulosic ethanol relies on a microscopic enzyme. But don't be fooled by the enzyme's benign appearance. These miniscule bits of matter have Herculean appetites for change and are capable of setting in motion any number of biological reactions, including the conversion of biomass to ethanol. However, while Mother Nature clearly intended enzymes to be a vital part of life and biological reactions, she left it up to us to figure out the exact recipes for success.

In the scientific equivalent of test kitchens, Novozymes scientists in laboratories around the world are constantly cooking up new variations on success. The company became involved in enzyme work related to cellulosic ethanol at the beginning of this decade and received its first U.S. DOE grant in 2000. Since then, the company has made a name for itself globally as a provider of enzymes, and it continues to build on that reputation. Christopher Veit, Novozymes senior marketing manager of biomass, says they began with a very limited amount of research and development committed to developing enzymes for cellulosic ethanol production. "Now it's the single largest R&D project in the company," he says. "We have eight years of experience to fall back on and build upon when it comes to the training of our scientists, understanding the substrates, the enzyme interactions and so on. There's a lot of momentum that goes into our current efforts, momentum that comes from the experience that we've built over the past nine-plus years."

Dedication to the production of enzymes for ethanol production appears to be working well for the company. Earlier this year, Novozymes introduced a new enzyme product family for use in the production of cellulosic ethanol. According to Novozymes global biomass business development manager Cynthia Bryant, the Cellic product family of enzymes will lead to the availability of commercially viable enzymes that will help make commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production a reality. "We actually have been testing these enzymes for a year with some of our partners because we wanted to make sure that our products could make a difference for the industry and act as a catalyst for the industry for further development and progress for cellulosic ethanol," she says. "Looking at the results from our partners, we've decided that these products can help others with progressing their research and developmental activities."

Production partners that have been testing these enzymes include potential cellulosic leaders such as Poet LLC, ICM Inc., KL Energy Corp., and BBI BioVentures LLC. The variety of producers testing the Cellic product family means that the enzymes have already been tested on a wide array of feedstocks. Corn stover, corn fiber, sugarcane bagasse and wood pulp are some of the substrates that have been tested, and the enzymes have proven to work with this line of feedstocks. Work continues with other feedstocks as well. The research and development pipeline at Novozymes is a long one, but Bryant is confident that Novozymes will deliver on its 2010 promise of delivering a commercially viable enzyme that will enable its partners' processes and deliver even higher performing enzymes in the future. "Our partners have faith in Novozymes' capability," she says.

While the Cellic enzymes are available industry-wide under the product names Cellic CTec and Cellic HTec, Bryant stresses that the Cellic enzyme family is not intended to be commercialized. "To us the definition of a commercial enzyme is something that is commercially-viable. These enzymes are definitely a significant step in the right direction toward getting to our 2010 promise of providing commercially-viable enzymes, but they're not there yet."

Cost is Key
Cost is one of the main focuses in the production of enzymes. Bryant says the Cellic family has the best cost/performance ratio on the market today with an average cost of use of $1 per gallon of ethanol. But costs still need to be cut in half before anyone can use the enzymes to produce fuel on a commercial scale. Novozymes' researchers are confident they're on the right track. "One thing we have learned is that we need to look at enzyme costs as the total enzyme cost window and not as the enzyme price per kilogram," says Bryant. "Until very recently, enzyme costs have always been a gray area. No one's really fully understood what is in the range of getting into that commercially-viable enzyme cost window." Novozymes plans to reduce enzyme costs per gallon to $.50 by next year.

The cost window for enzymes Bryant refers to varies greatly and is dependent upon many factors, including pretreatment processes, fermentation processes and feedstocks. Bryant says that through its research, Novozymes is trying to provide a little clarity for producers on these issues and offer a better estimate of what it will take to produce at a commercial level while at the same time perfecting its own production process. According to Veit, "It's all about efficiency—developing a cost-effective process and at the same time developing better enzymes for less."

Of course, all of this cost analysis research also costs money. The financial requirements necessary to conduct enzyme research and development are significant and Novozymes has secured several federal grants to assist in funding enzyme discovery and modification. In February 2008, the U.S. DOE awarded several companies, including Novozymes, millions of dollars in aid for a project aptly named DECREASE - the Development of a Commercial-Ready Enzyme Application System for Ethanol. Novozymes has its own researchers in California, North Carolina, Denmark and China working on the project as well as outside partners at Cornell University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and France's national scientific research center. This research will directly affect the availability of $.50 per gallon enzymes in the near future.

Novozymes' Next Chapter
Determining the enzyme cost window and continuing research and development of technologies are vital parts of the enzyme production recipe, but another vital component is defining the right production model. For Novozymes, that model has become a hub production facility. According to Veit, the idea of a hub model is to centrally locate a large enzyme production facility and enable the facility to be incorporate constant improvements in technology as they come about. In late March, the company broke ground on its first enzyme hub in Blair, Neb., and plans to have it operational in 2011. The $200 million facility will encompass 30 acres of property approximately 25 miles north of Omaha—right near the heart of the Midwest ethanol industry. "We want to build as close to the industry as we possibly can to minimize our transport costs and some of the costs that go into producing enzymes but at the same time realize all of the benefits that can come from producing on a large-scale and incorporating the new technology that's being constantly developed," Veit says. By comparison, the on-site enzyme production model would be hindered by limited resources and would have difficulties incorporate continuous improvements to their processes. Veit adds that having multiple small facilities spread across many locations would lead to consistency issues. "One of the things Novozymes takes pride in is that no matter where our enzymes are produced, you're going to get the same product," he says. "We want to make sure that continues going forward."

In addition to the expansions being made on U.S. soil, Novozymes North American President Lars Hansen noted in his March stakeholder letter that the company and its Chinese partner, China National Cereals, Oil & Foodstuff Corporation, brought the world's largest enzyme facility online earlier this year in Jiangsu, China. Shortly after, the two companies signed an agreement with Chinese oil and energy company Sinopec to develop second-generation ethanol from agricultural waste. Hansen told stakeholders in his letter that U.S. and Chinese car owners will be the first to fuel their cars with second-generation ethanol, due in part to the enzyme work being conducted at Novozymes. Confident in the company's timeline for commercial-scale ready enzymes by 2010, Hansen encourages decision makers to create policies with clear targets for the development of second-generation biofuels. "This is not only the most efficient way to support continued investment in large-scale production, but also continued innovation and improvement of second-generation biofuels," his letter states.

While enzymes are not the only component necessary for cellulosic ethanol producers to scale-up their product, it is an extremely necessary one. Costs may be an issue across the board when considering commercial-scale production, but getting enzyme costs to within a window of possibility will pave the way for other cost issues to be resolved. And for producers who have already been waiting so long, one more year is not much more to wait.

Kris Bevill is the editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at kbevill@bbiinternational.com or (701)373-8044.