The project, funded with €12.8 million, is to span four years and recently started with the first joint meeting in Paris of the 21 universities, research institutes, and companies that are participating in the project.
“The idea is for the project eventually to bring about new patents and commercialization opportunities” explains Guido Zacchi, professor of chemical engineering at Lund Institute of Technology (LTH). LTH and Lund University are the largest university partners in the project and are responsible for several components in NILE, New Improvement for Lignocellulosic Ethanol, as the project is called. The chief coordinator is Institut Français du Petrol.
The project has identified three high priority tasks that are judged to be especially urgent: a) to develop new enzymes to degrade cellulose in plant material (primarily coniferous wood and agricultural waste, such as wheat straw) into sugar; b) to develop several new strains of yeast to convert all types of sugar in biomass into ethanol; and c) to enhance process integration to reduce the amount of energy used in the process.
“We have already made so much progress that we can produce ethanol from biomass, for example, at the pilot plant in Örnsköldsvik. The great challenge for the ethanol industry today is that more cost- and resource-effective production is needed to allow the large-scale introduction of fuel ethanol made from biomass. To achieve this, it’s absolutely necessary to acquire more knowledge based on process-integrated research,” says Bärbel Hahn-Hägerdal, who is in charge of the technological development of the new strains of yeast that will be able to convert the various forms of sugar into ethanol. A total of five researchers and three doctoral students are involved in the project at LTH.
NILE is the only ethanol project to be granted funding from the EU’s Sixth Framework Program. Two other major pan-European research projects had applied for money to research the production of ethanol, but NILE was judged by EU to have the greatest potential in terms of content and partners. Other Swedish NILE partners are:
ETEK, which is responsible for operating the Swedish national ethanol pilot plant in Örnsköldsvik. LTH and Lund University play a major role in shaping the pilot trials and are on the scientific board that oversees the plant.
SEKAB, which is a major distributor of ethanol in Sweden and also a considerable presence in a European perspective.
BAFF, which is a foundation of industrial interests working to promote the development of technology and the introduction of ethanol as a fuel in Sweden.