A deal announced today between two Crown Research Institutes and a US company is said to open up the possibility of New Zealand's entire vehicle fleet ultimately running on biofuels grown and manufactured in this country.
The three parties are CRIs Scion and AgResearch and San Diego-based Diversa Corporation which has pioneered the development of high-performance specialty enzymes.
In a statement today the partners said they had agreed to co-ordinate technology development to investigate the feasibility of a transportation biofuel industry in this country using bio-based feedstocks such as trees and grasses.
A recently finished preliminary study, undertaken at Scion in Rotorua and Diversa in San Diego, had investigated the potential for applying Diversa's enzymes to New Zealand-grown tree stocks to convert the wood into sugars, which could then be fermented and refined into ethanol and other products.
Scion chief executive Tom Richardson said the results from the preliminary study were "extremely positive", prompting the three organisations to agree to a feasibility study to further assess the technology and economics of a transportation biofuel industry in New Zealand.
The study would also produce a roadmap to identify potential risks or barriers to commercialisation as well as specific technical and commercialisation plans.
"If the results of the feasibility study are positive, the three organisations will work together to bring this vision to reality."
New Zealand uses more than 3 billion litres of petrol a year, with more than half the country's energy use being fossil fuel-based.
The partners said they believed this country's forestry industry could provide renewable and sustainable energy alternatives from an environmentally beneficial resource.
It had the potential to meet the goals of the Ministry of Climate Change, which is finalising strategies for dealing with climate issues.
Diversa would use proprietary metagenomic enzyme discovery and optimization technologies to develop robust enzymes designed for cost-effective wood biomass conversion and to improve fermentation performance, the partners said.
Diversa has commercialised enzyme products and has development-stage programmes in the biofuels sector.
Its chief executive officer, Edward Shonsey, said resources such as New Zealand forests could be used to make ethanol and replace a significant proportion of imported petrol.
"This is one of the most exciting and profound projects I have ever been involved in, and we are looking forward to deploying Diversa's powerful enzyme discovery and development technologies to create new cocktails of enzymes to convert wood to ethanol cost-effectively," he said.
"This represents an opportunity to have a positive impact on the future of New Zealand and other countries with abundant cellulosic biomass such as wood. Successfully developing new cocktails of enzymes to convert wood to ethanol could really change the paradigm of energy thought and policy."
Scion's Dr Richardson said that developing energy and climate change policies should anticipate an ever-expanding range of products and environmental services from the plantation forests covering 7 per cent of this country's landmass.
The work announced today would, in particular, investigate whether novel enzymes could be used as part of the pulp and paper manufacturing process to make ethanol and other co-products, along with the full flow-on implications of such a shift.
"New Zealand is in a unique position of being able to investigate the real possibility of transforming from a petrochemical-based to a carbohydrate-based economy," AgResearch business development manager Richard Curtis said.
The project would also assess other potential feedstocks, such as grass, with AgResearch's Forage Biotechnology and Forage Improvement teams providing expertise for that component of the project.
AgResearch would also use its expertise in catchment and life cycle modelling in the project.