Biofuel network launched 

By Dawn Wiseman

The Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of National Revenue and Minister of State for Agriculture, announced $19.9 million in funding over the next three fiscal years for the Cellulosic Biofuels Network (CBN), a major national project focusing on the conversion of agricultural waste into biofuel. The announcement was made Jan. 22 in Quebec City.

Serge Laberge and Margaret Gruber from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are co-leads of CBN which involves nine government laboratories, nine universities and private partner FPInnovations. Concordia is coordinating the efforts of the nine universities participating in the network.

Biofuels, like ethanol, are produced through a process of sugar fermentation. Right now, these sugars are relatively easy to obtain from the starchy parts of edible plants like corn because starch, a complex carbohydrate, converts to sugar fairly quickly and cost-effectively.

Unfortunately, the repurposing of crops from food to fuel production can have significant and often unpredictable social, environmental and economic impacts. So, scientists and governments all over the world are partnering to examine more efficient sources of biofuel development. One potential solution is cellulose.

Adrian Tsang talks with Katia El Jurdi, a Science College student conducting independent research in Tsang’s lab. Magnifying glass

Adrian Tsang talks with Katia El Jurdi, a Science College student conducting independent research in Tsang’s lab.

“The goal is to make use of available cellulose,” said Adrian Tsang of Concordia’s Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics (CSFG). He aims to turn it into a valuable product by allowing farmers to market the entire plant including parts that are often just burned as garbage.

Cellulose is the chief part of the cell walls of higher plants – plants that have lignified tissues for conducting water, minerals and photosynthetic products. It is completely indigestible to humans and, until recently, had no little or no commercial value to farmers. CBN hopes to change that.

The 42 primary investigators of CBN, including Tsang, Greg Butler of of Computer Science, Vincent Martin and Reginald Storms of Biology and Justin Powlowski of Chemistry and Biochemistry are examining the en-tire process of ethanol production to develop new technologies and methods that will increase the efficiency and reduce the costs associated with the production of cellulosic ethanol.

The research of Tsang and Powlowski focuses on the breakdown of cellulose to sugar. Like starch, cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, but one with a considerably more intricate chemical structure. Out in farmers’ fields where corn stalks, wheat chaff and other waste products are allowed to decompose, species-specific enzymes from fungi and yeasts naturally break down cellulose and return its constituent parts to the soil over time.

Cellulose breakdown for industrial purposes is a significantly less-green process requiring lots of energy and harsh chemical treatment of the plant fibres.

CBN is hoping to leverage the natural processes of yeast and fungal enzymes to make the process quicker, cleaner and more cost-effective. As Tsang pointed out, “Fungi have a billion years of evolution. They’re smarter than we are when it comes to cellulose hydrolysis. We are learning from them.”

Still, the expertise of Powlowski and Tsang in identifying and replicating fungal and yeast enzymes will be key to CBN. Identification of the right enzymes could literally be the equivalent of striking a gusher when prospecting for oil.

The work of Martin and Storms is later in the production process and focuses on engineering microorganisms for the conversion of sugars to ethanol. The brewers yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the traditional workhorse of the alcoholic fermentation industry. Unfortunately, this organism is not well adapted for the proposed application of converting cellulose to ethanol. Martin and Storms are using genetic engineering methods to produce a strain of yeast that will meet the needs of the industry. Butler is streamlining the network’s process for information exchange, analysis and reporting.

“The network brings together some of the key researchers across the country to work on processes that add value to underutilized agricultural residues of Canada as well as contribute to the international effort to transition from a fossil-fuel economy to a biomass-based economy,” said Tsang.


Concordia University