When describing emergent industries like cellulosic ethanol, people often use the analogy of running a marathon, because new industries take time to build. That said, I think it’s sometimes really important to take stock of how far we’ve come with advancing the industry, making what used to be called a fantasy fuel commercially viable. Only ten years ago, enzyme costs of $2-5 per gallon were one of the main inhibitors of commercialization. Constant improvements in the performance of enzymes since then have resulted in an up to tenfold reduction of enzyme costs. This has been a major factor in enabling the development of the first wave of large-scale cellulosic ethanol plants and the commercialization of this industry. Today, enzymes are a valuable tool in plants’ process optimization efforts, helping ensure the lowest production cost per unit of ethanol. One example of improvements in enzymes lowering production costs is the fact that today’s plants can reduce the use of acid in pretreatment and operate at a broader range of pH and temperature profiles as a result of improved enzyme performance.

One size does not fit all

Our emerging industry is complex. A wide range of biomass types and different technology processes to fractionate this biomass are used across the globe. Today’s seven commercial plants use steam explosion, acid, or alkaline treatment to fractionate the biomass, while their feedstocks include sugar cane bagasse or tops and leaves (Brazil), corn/wheat straw (US), rice/wheat straw and energy crops (EU) and corn cobs (China). At the same time, processes are continuously being optimized. While it is all biomass conversion, the optimal enzyme composition needed to hydrolyze the C5 and C6 sugars varies from feedstock to feedstock and process to process. Enzymes are by nature specific to the substrate and conditions they require for optimal performance – one size does not fit all – so this diversity in pretreatment processes and feedstocks sets a limit to the potential of standardized enzyme products.

Customized enzymes – the next milestone

That’s why our customized Cellic® enzyme products are tailored to our strategic partners’ specific feedstocks and process technologies. The enzymes are developed to give our partners the flexibility they need to achieve the optimal balance of plant parameters including pretreatment severity, total solids loading, enzyme dosing, hydrolysis time and ultimately total biomass conversion. This optimal balance represents a plant’s most efficient operating setup and brings conversion costs as low as possible.

Ultimately our customers seek to increase plant profitability. Customized enzyme products are one powerful tool available to our partners and reflect an important milestone in enzyme technology development that will support the development of our industry as a whole.

Find out more about Novozymes customized Cellic® enzymes in a presentation about Biomass Conversion from our recent Capital Markets Day.

Florian Isermeyer

Based in Denmark, Florian is Global Marketing Manager in Novozymes’ Biomass Conversion BD team. In this role he coordinates Novozymes’ global marketing efforts in the Biomass Conversion area and is also leading the launch of next generation enzyme products. He comes with an education from Stockholm School of Economics and the University of St. Gallen. Outside of work, he is a keen swimmer, road biker and sailor.