In the UK, Imperial College scientists have enhanced the process of using biology to make products such as fuels, plastics, medicines, and cosmetics, breaking down plant-based biomass 30 times faster than currently possible.
This could lead to cheaper and more environmentally friendly biofuel production and more efficient plastic recycling.
Researchers modified the glucosidase enzyme, which helps break down complex carbohydrates in biomass, like cellulose from plant cells, into its basic units, glucose. The glucose can then be fermented to make ethanol, a form of biofuel.
Releasing glucose from cellulose is currently the most expensive and time consuming part of the process. This is partly because enzymes typically stop working at temperatures higher than 70 °C and when in industrial solvents like ionic liquids. However, if the enzyme could work in higher temperatures and ionic liquids, the conditions would hasten the process. To make glucosidase more robust, they altered its chemical structure to let it withstand heat of up to 137 °C. The alteration also meant they could use the enzyme in ionic liquids instead of the usual water, and that they could use one enzyme instead of three.
They found that the combined effect of heat resistance and solubility in ionic liquids increased the glucose output 30-fold. If the technique is taken up on a large scale, fuel-related carbon emissions could fall by 80-100 per cent.