Making Progress in Biorefining Technology
In her book, Welcome to Biotech Nation, Dr. Moira Gunn dedicated a section to a matter very close to my heart – that of biofuels, specifically bioethanol. With the recent flurry of media attention to the greenhouse gas problem, the concept of using biofuels has regained considerable attention. Although the technologies of the past had their problems with sustainability and cost effectiveness, the exciting thing about biotechnology is that it is always changing.
Bioethanol production has traditionally not been terribly cost-efficient, and critics have claimed (not necessarily accurately) that the use of corn for biofuels was responsible for driving up the price of foods that use corn-derived sugars and starches, in recent years. Past biofuel production processes are criticized for using too many fossil fuels and other forms of energy for too little benefit. However, Dr. Gunn put it best when she said "All analyses of ethanol production that you have come into contact with to date may no longer be accurate." She emphasizes that new reports on biorefining process "must be questioned as to…" the nature of the biorefinery process, parts of the crop that are being used, the possibility of value-added chemicals being derived and utilized, and their role in the economics of bioethanol production, in addition to other factors that affect the same economics.
Scientists are reworking the biorefining process in an ongoing attempt to make it more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable and that includes making use of cellulose (the whole cornstalk or other plants) instead of only the sugars found in eatable corn kernels, or developing GM crops with more efficient enzymes that are more suited to biorefining processes or alternative substrates. The just of the matter is, whenever you hear something about biofuels and biorefining, keep an open mind and never assume that what you've heard about it in the past applies now.
M. Gunn. Welcome to Biotech Nation. AMACOM, New York, NY, USA. 2007.