Scientists at the universities of York and Portsmouth are looking at the gribble, a small shrimp-like crustacean. As it bores into wood for ingestion as food, this creature has until now been mainly reviled for the destruction that it causes to marine timber structures such as jetties and piers.
Now, however, scientists want to use the enzymes in its gut to break down wood and turn it into sugar. Meanwhile, scientists at Rothamsted Research are producing woody biomass while others at Nottingham University are looking to turn sugars into ethanol using yeast.
Professor Katherine Smart, a plant scientist at the University of Nottingham, is one of the project leaders. She says that much can be done to improve the efficiency of extracting a plant's cellulose and converting it into alcohol.
"At the moment we can produce 19 grams of ethanol from 100 g of straw. Based on the current amount of straw not currently used in the UK, we have between 8-10 million tonnes of straw available for this kind of conversion. That could produce about a 10% of current use of petrol," she says.
Another project at Nottingham, led by Professor Nigel Minton, involves Clostridia bacteria, which might be able to turn woody biomass directly into butanol. Butanol is another alcohol but could be more practical as a petrol replacement.
One of the industrial partners, Dr Richard Flavell, Chief Scientific Officer at California-based Ceres, Inc, a developer and marketer of bioenergy crops for biofuel and biopower production, says that bringing together public and industrial resources could cut years off introduction timelines for these new bioenergy crops, and lead to better results.
He noted that with research into higher yields and optimal management techniques, perennial bioenergy crops, such as miscanthus and willow that are the focus of the new Bioenergy Centre set up with the BBSRC funding, should result in soil carbon sequestration on a scale not achieved by other renewable resources, and thus contribute valuable environmental benefits."
The UK bioenergy industry is ready to move forward, from making individual technologies work on a small-scale to putting together a sustainable, full-scale production and delivery chain. The new Bioenergy Centre will be a catalyst for bringing together the diverse technologies and perspectives needed to make the Government's aim a viable reality," Flavell says. "We are excited about working more closely with such leading members of the crop science and renewable energy communities."