Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Gribble and Yorkshire Research Seeks to Isolate Biofuel Producing Enzyme to Compete with Anaerobic Digestion

Simon McQueen-Mason, Professor of Materials Biology at the University of York, has won a record budget to investigate how the gribble consumes wood.

According to Michael McCarthy the Independent Environment Editor the little creature could hold the key to a discovery which would turn wood into sustainable motor fuel on a vast scale.

If they can isolate and synthesise the enzyme the quirky named creature uses to feed on wood, the way may then be open to greatly increase production of biofuels such as ethanol can be made without using food crops.

We are told that Simon came across the gribble when he was a professional fisherman on the Isle of Wight for six years before beginning his academic career. "I used to clean the bottom of other people's boats, and gribble was a major problem," he said.

Now his laboratory will study gribbles collected from rotting wood by staff from the University of Portsmouth, identifying their enzymes and trying to reproduce them synthetically.

The name of the gribble sounds as if it must be a purely fictional creature straight out of a children’s story or cartoon. But in fact it's a small marine creature resembling a woodlouse.

The gribble spends its life boring into the planks of boats and the pillars of piers and to eat them, and its wood-consuming technique is highly successful. The gribble, is actually, the four-spot gribble, Limnoria quadripunctata, and will feature strongly in Britain's biggest-ever publicly-funded bioenergy research programme, announced last week.

£27m will be spent over five years in the project which aims to create so-called "second generation" biofuels, which are much more efficient than those in production today and in a way which will be much more environmentally friendly than present biofuels, which are largely manufactured from food crops such as maize, wheat or sugar cane.

These proposed second-generation fuels will be derived from non-food plant material, ideally plant waste such as straw and wood, with fast growing high calorific value willow being particularly favoured. If they can isolate the enzymes the gribble uses to extract the nutritious sugars from wood they will have made a big step on this path.

Success could mean an enormous expansion of willow as a biofuel crop in Britain, on some of the three million acres of lesser quality or marginal farmland countrywide, which would go a long way to meeting Britain's targets of drawing 5 per cent of motor fuel from biological sources by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020.

Would it compete with Anaerobic Digestion? To a certain extent; Yes! However, demand for renewable fuel is likely to be so high that there will be a place for the second generation biofuels and biogas/anaerobic digestion.

As ever - please give us your views by commenting on the blog site, we would be delighted to know your thoughts about this.

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