Researchers Turning Sugar Beets into Biofuels

John Davis

sugarbeet1Researchers believe they have found a way to turn sugar beets into a low-cost biofuel, thanks to the development of an enzyme that speeds up the process.

A press release from Atlantic Biomass, a Frederick, Maryland, biotech-biofuel company focused on developing cutting-edge systems to produce advanced biofuels from sustainable, non-food biomass, says work with Hood College has produced a thermostable enzyme that opens the way to a new pathway for low-cost biofuel production using sugar beet pulp as feedstock. The researchers have put their findings in the latest issue of the American Society of Microbiology’s journal Applied and Environment Microbiology:

Thermostability, or the ability to perform at high temperatures, is needed in biofuel and other industrial applications so enzymes can survive in the higher temperatures of commercial production systems and use the higher temperatures to speed up conversion reactions. The pectinmethylesterase (pme) enzyme developed by the Hood College/Atlantic Biomass team was fashioned to function in the sugar beet production environment of 650C (approximately 1500F) which is at the top end for this class of enzymes.

“This development alone is important for opening up the use of beet pulp and similar agricultural residues for biofuel production,” said Atlantic Biomass president and founder Bob Kozak. “More important, the development of this enzyme led us to an understanding of how enzymes break down plant cell walls and overcome biomass recalcitrance.” Using this research, Atlantic Biomass is currently patenting that process in addition to the pme enzyme. “Overcoming biomass recalcitrance is the Holy Grail of economical biofuel production,” Kozak pointed out. “I think we’re finally on the right path.”

Kozak hopes the Obama Administration will be able to see the value in research like this and fund more of it.