As the world faces the reality of peak oil, serious efforts are being made to develop renewable energy sources that can displace our dependence on fossil fuels. One promising alternative fuel source is biological production (biofuels), in which fuels such as ethanol are produced from a wide variety of agricultural feed stocks. Current production of ethanol involves microbial fermentation of the sugars derived from sugarcane (in Brazil) or the starch from grain (predominantly corn in the US and eastern Canada, and wheat in the prairie provinces of Canada), followed by distillation of the ethanol from the fermentation broths. However, the longterm prospects of grainbased ethanol production is in question because the cost of the feed stocks makes up a large fraction of the total costs of production, and the use of food grains has very negative implications for food prices. Thus, abundant, lowcost feed stocks from other sources are essential for the commercial viability of biofuel production.
Sources of cellulosecontaining biomass (lignocellulosics) are a potential feed stock for synthesis of fuels, and are typically waste products from forestry (e.g., wood chips) or agricultural (e.g., straw from wheat, flax and hemp) sources. However, processes that produce only ethanol from lignocellulosics are not economical. One way to overcome this limitation is to cosynthesize highvalue products, such as lignin for resins and adhesives, along with the production of biofuels and plastics from cellulose.
The focus of our research is on the bacteria that accomplish the conversion of the lignocellulosics to ethanol, hydrogen, and plastics. We aim to increase the economic potential of the refining processes by developing wellcharacterized cultures of bacteria that can carry out these industrially important specific enzymatic reactions. This requires detailed understanding of both the genes (and their function) and metabolism of bacteria that use cellulose to make fuels and other products.
We will carry out a full genomic characterization of known and new bacteria that are selected for their ability to contribute to a variety of metabolic processes. On the basis of this information we will produce metabolically engineered bacteria with enhanced fuel and coproduct synthesis characteristics. We will combine appropriate bacterial strains to create communities (or "consortia") of microorganisms for industrial application. The aim is to enable biorefineries to generate products (ethanol, hydrogen, and coproducts) from relatively lowcost feed stocks of lignocellulosics, thus increasing their economicviability. The goal is to help establish Canada as a leader in the production of biofuels and bioplastics.
Integrated GE3LS Research: The social and economic costs of large-scale biofuel production
GE3LS Project Leader: Stuart Smyth, University of Saskatchewan
The use of biological material for fuel production raises some important societal questions. Perhaps the question foremost on the minds of many is the effect on food costs as production of biofuel displaces food in large areas of land. Related to this is the environmental sustainability of biofuels based on the suggestion that the environmental footprint of biofuels may be even larger than that of carbon-based energy. We will approach these questions with the aid of computerbased economic simulations. These will use current agronomic data as the basis for developing models for possible future effects of growing biofuel crops.
Although environmental biofuel-impact studies generally find a net energy gain and a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, it is possible that production of some biofuels could have serious environmental and social consequences. One of the best ways to evaluate this is by analyzing biofuel production so as to take into account all processes throughout its entire life cycle. The first phase of our study will be an analysis using data from southern Manitoba, in which energy input and- output data for each step of the process is defined. This will be the basis for assessing potential environmental impacts at all stages. We will emphasize impact categories such as water quality, water use, climate change and energy balance.
Second, we will determine how changes in the prairie agricultural ecosystem could be affected by growing different kinds of biofuel feed-stock, using southern Manitoba as an example. We will evaluate the production characteristics of several different feed-stocks in order to determine their environmental value. These data will provide the basis for calculating the dollar value of changes due to environmental variables. Third, we will identify patents that have the potential to retard biofuel research. It is often the case that successful research must overcome obstacles that exist due to the difficulty of using methods patented by others. Our aim is to help the biofuel industry identify, and ultimately avoid, impediments to research due to the existence of patents.