Netherlands: ECN invention reduces cost of biofuel

Research institute seeking companies to improve and apply the technology

Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) has developed a new technology that could reduce the cost of producing sustainable biofuels from biomass by some 10 to 15 cents per litre. In order to further development the patented technology and be able to apply it on an industrial scale, the research institute is seeking to work with international bio-refineries and test plants.

The new method is called Cellulase Saver. “This has brought affordable, so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels another step closer. Eventually, they should be able to compete with fossil fuels, in terms of cost-price,” claim researchers Arjan Smit and Wouter Huijgen of ECN.

First generation bio-ethanol, which is currently blended (up to five per cent) with regular petrol at the pumps, is produced from the edible part of biomass, such as maize. This is regarded as less sustainable as it uses up food and scarce agricultural land.

Second generation biofuels are made from the inedible parts of biomass, in particular from forestry and agricultural residues such as maize stalks, wheat straw, or bagasse (a by-product of sugar cane). This produces greater CO2 savings than first-generation biofuels and does not displace other resources.

“However, production is technically more complicated and costlier. This means that without any grants, these biofuels are not yet economically viable. Nonetheless, more than nine billion litres of second-generation biofuels are expected to have been produced worldwide by 2018, according to calculations by the International Energy Agency.

The production of biofuels involves releasing cellulose from fibre crops like straw and other agricultural residual flows. Enzymes are then added (cellulase) in order to break the cellulose down into sugars which are then fermented into ethanol, for example. A major cost factor in this process is the enzymes.

By first washing the biomass with water during an additional stage and then filtering it, ECN has succeeded in extracting proteins which are then added again later in the process. These proteins improve the effect of the enzymes. The cost difference is 10 to 15 cents per litre of fuel. “We do not know how far the costs of enzymes will fall, but I estimate the savings potential from the Cellulase Saver will run into hundreds of millions of euros worldwide,” says Sjoerd Wittkampf, who is responsible for the commercial side of the technology.

ECN is looking for industrial parties who would like to apply the method. “We are seeking a commercial partner to demonstrate the technology in practice in order to bring the cost-price of biofuel down further,” explain Smit and Huijgen. “We also want to test the Cellulase Saver on different technologies for the production of sustainable biofuels to those we have already used, so that we will be able to deploy the technology in even more areas in the near future.”


More information

For more information you can read the Technology Offer of Cellulase Saver or contact Sjoerd Wittkampf, Technology Transfer Manager at ECN. Are you interested in our other technologies? Take a look at our page on technology transfer.


ECN, press release, 2015-04-16.


Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN)
International Energy Agency (IEA)