Biotechnology Can Tap Potential Hidden By Energy Crisis

UK - Fibre is the future and fungus holds the key. That's the opinion of Dr Pearse Lyons, President of Biotechnology business, Alltech.
calendar icon 20 February 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

"Behind the energy crisis there is silver lining," said Dr Lyons.
"Starch and cellulose are the same molecule and fibre is the new food."Dr Pearse Lyons, President of Alltech

Addressing the British-leg of the company's European Lecture Tour, he explained how micro-biology could unleash massive opportunities for livestock nutrition. It can unlock the 'feed' potential of a raft of resources, including bio-energy by-products, alternative crops and other recycled food waste.

He believes the bio-energy industry is missing a vital point - producing ethanol from cellulose is efficient and far more sustainable.

The biotechnology to turn fibre - ie wood - into more useable, nutritive compounds is available, now. And such technology could access more energy from inconsistent or low-nutrient value raw materials. It could also curb the mass diversion of cereals and oilseeds away from food which is currently occuring, said Dr Lyons.

"Starch and cellulose are the same molecule and fibre IS the new food," he said.

Strong Beliefs

In simple terms, it's a similar process to the natural rotting of wood, where micro-organisms naturally break down cellulose and in so doing alter the nutritional profile of the material.

Alltech has developed a process - Solid State Fermentation (SSF) - that uses carefully selected fungi to break down high-fibre by-products into valuable nutritional materials. The technology, derived from the brewing industry, can be applied to a variety of compounds. It's natural, sustainable, cost effective and produces consistent results.

Whats's more the process can be used with most high-fibre organic materials to improve their energy values and efficiency as fuel resources.

Dr Lyons said that more research and development was needed in this area, but it opens up the door to a raft of new possibilities for both food and energy production.

And Alltech is putting its money where it's mouth is. The company is investing in a fully integrated community bio-refinery in Kentucky, which will combine farming, aquaculture, meat and milk production, fuel generation and waste management.

Dr Lyons believes it is a model of sustainable food and fuel production and demonstrates the value of science, and in particular biotechnology, within practical, sustainable, agriculture production.

Global Value

This US$Multi-million project is about to break ground on a site in Springfield and the technology on which it is founded will have far reaching implications, for the region's farming industry, US agribusiness and possibly agricultural industries across the globe.

"Alltech is committed to the future of agriculture. This incentive represents a big step toward making that happen," said Dr Lyons,

The Kentucky bio-refinery will be the first in the United States to use cellulose, such as switch grass, corn cobs and corn stover to produce ethanol and other value-added products. The facility is estimated to cost $40 million and will employ around 90 people when operating at full capacity.

This plant goes beyond a typical ethanol facility because it incorporates Solid State Fermentation. SFF will enable Alltech to take the fibre residues left behind from ethanol production and convert it into usable raw materials for animal feed manufacture.

Green Credentials

The biorefinery will also impact on Kentucky’s production agriculture by housing dairy and beef cattle to be branded under the 'Kentucky Proud' label. It will also contribute to improving milk self-sufficiency in the state. The facility will also include aquaculture, producing fish and also algae - a very biodiverse plant. According to National Geographic, algae can theoretically produce 5,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year and also has the potential to absorb up to 450 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre when grown commercially.

The biorefinery also presents an opportunity to forge partnerships with research and development. As part of the project’s research component, scientists will work to identify and address process improvements, develop economically and environmentally-sound technologies, as well as use process simulation to reduce raw material costs and optimise energy utilisation.

However, a key aim is to produce a strategy that will enable this 'model' to be developed into a commercial business opportunity that can be replicated across the world.

The 22nd European Lecture Tour is currently underway throughout the EU and Eastern Europe. The three week, thirty date tour is titled: The Feed Cost Puzzle and is focusing on the challenges faced by the feed industry and livestock producers.
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