Iogen cancels a pioneering facility to turn crop waste into ethanol.

A leading biofuels company whose products have powered Formula 1 racing cars has hit a major bump in the road.

Canadian company Iogen Energy in Ottawa announced on 30 April that it has shelved plans to build a large-scale facility in Manitoba to produce fuel ethanol from cellulose, the long molecular chain of sugars that forms the fibrous material in plants.

Instead, the company will “refocus its strategy and activities”, leading to a smaller development programme and the loss of 150 jobs, its joint owners Royal Dutch Shell and Iogen Corporation said in a statement. Iogen Corporation would not comment further on the story and Shell did not respond to Nature‘s questions.

In the past decade, growing concerns about climate change, rising energy consumption and dependence on foreign oil  have prompted countries and companies to invest in biofuel production.

Most fuel ethanol is made by fermenting the sugars in grains or sugar cane, but cellulosic ethanol can be made from municipal waste, wood chips, grass, and the stalks, leaves and stems of food crops. It is seen as a more sustainable biofuel because it does not divert food from dinner tables to biorefineries. But cracking apart the tough cellulose molecules is a lot harder than brewing up simple sugars.

Cracking stuff

Iogen opened the world’s first demonstration plant for producing cellulosic ethanol in Ottawa in 2004. Its process uses enzymes to break down the cellulose in wheat, oat and barley straw to glucose, which is then converted to ethanol.

Although the plant’s production capacity is nearly 2 million litres per year, its output peaked at just 581,042 litres in 2009. In 2008, Iogen suspended plans to build a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Iowa, and in 2011 it decided not to set up a plant in central Saskatchewan.

“This shouldn’t be seen as a black mark on the industry,” says Scott Thurlow, president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association. “There is still lots of opportunity in Canada.”

Keep reading this story in Nature.

Image from jayneandd on Flickr

Written by Hannah

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