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Published on September 7th, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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World’s Largest Producer Of Industrial Enzymes Comes Out Swinging For Biofuel (CT Exclusive Interview)

September 7th, 2015 by  


The global biotech firm Novozymes has been sailing under the CleanTechnica radar, but we did take note earlier this year when Novozymes CEO Peder Holk Nielsen had some pithy things to say about the global petroleum industry. Mr. Nielsen had some even more pithier things to say when we caught up with him by telephone last week, especially regarding the opportunities for growth in the biofuel industry when a major global climate action milestone — COP21 — comes up in Paris later this year.

enzymes biofuel Novozymes

Long Live Petroleum, For Now

Last May Paris hosted the Global Business and Climate Summit, which introduced itself with the slogan “working together to build a better economy.” That turned out to be wishful thinking. When US Secretary of State John Kerry took the occasion to invite everybody to invest their dollars in renewable energy, he provoked a furious — and predictable — backlash from global oil companies. The Guardian cited Nielsen’s rejoinder:

…The oil companies will not help the world to switch to renewable energy – that will never happen. They are part of a system that protects the business they have. The only way the world gets more renewables is if bold politicians step up to it and mandate.

In our conversation last week, Nielsen expanded on the point that the petroleum industry will never be a willing partner in climate action. He called for the upcoming COP 21 Paris climate talks to result in “firm and aggressive numbers” for near-term action over the next 10 or 15 years. For Nielsen that means either some form of taxation, or the imposition of “direct limits” on carbon emissions:

Carbon is paid for long before it’s consumed. Some of the world’s most successful companies have a lot of carbon on their balance sheets, and they’ll do whatever it takes to bring it to market. We need politicians to step up to the plate.

Novozymes And Biofuel

For those of you new to the topic, enzymes are proteins that push chemical reactions in living organisms. From the Novozymes perspective, deploying enzymes in industrial process is a no-brainer. Here’s an excerpt from the company’s enzymes primer:

Enzymes may accelerate reactions by factors of a million or even more. Carbonic anhydrase…is one of the fastest enzymes known. Each molecule of the enzyme can hydrate 100,000 molecules of carbon dioxide per second. This is ten million times faster than the nonenzyme- catalyzed reaction.

Novozymes has been tinkering around with enzymes since the 1950’s. The company has accumulated a wide diversity of markets for its products, and biofuel represents another new growth opportunity.

Here’s how Nielsen made the biofuel case during our conversation (snipped for continuity):

Nature is pretty smart in the way it uses energy and raw materials…Nature doesn’t waste a lot. We can make better use of materials, and extract all of the nutrients and values from biomass.

Many of the solutions [for carbon mitigation] can be found in nature. Biomass is just stored sunlight, like nature’s own solar panel…To face the carbon mitigation challenge, we actually have the solution. We just have to deploy it, we don’t have to start from scratch.

As Nielsen sees it, for the time being global ethanol demand will continue to be supplied by first-generation biofuel crops, namely corn and other food crops. The current reality is that “ethanol has complications but it is by far the cheapest.” According to Nielsen, 10 percent of the world’s ethanol is currently produced by US corn farmers, a contribution to the global biofuel scene that is not easily replaced.

Over the long term Nielsen sees more sustainability promise in waste biomass, including agricultural, forest, and municipal waste. That offers a growth opportunity for Novozymes. As improved fuel efficiency and other alternatives (electricity, for example), push demand for biofuel down, biofuel producers are under increased pressure to keep investing in cheaper, more efficient processes.

Battle Of The Behemoths

Nielsen also mentioned a new venture that pairs Novozymes with Monsanto. The two companies formed it in 2013 under the heading BioAg Alliance. The new partnership leverages Novozymes’s experience with microbes for the development of future crops.

Over and above Monsanto’s rather complicated record on sustainable agriculture, the BioAg Alliance underscores an important point about environmental action today. It’s not just the non-profits and local activists against the big guys any more, it’s an all-out battle between powerful corporate stakeholders.

That dynamic has been playing out in the US, with major companies stepping up their carbon policies while pulling out of fossil-friendly lobbying organizations, namely the US Chamber of Commerce and ALEC.

Last summer, 13 major US companies also signed on to the Obama Administration’s new Climate Pledge, including these heavy hitters: Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Cargill, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Google, Microsoft, PepsiCo, UPS, and Walmart.

Speaking of the Obama Administration, we asked Nielsen for some thoughts on two fossil issues that recently came (or are coming) to a head. With the disclaimer that his remarks are not to be taken politically, Nielsen had this to say about the President’s decision to green-light oil drilling in the Arctic:

Drilling more holes in the Arctic is not going to help us with carbon emissions.

As for the other issue, that would be the Keystone XL tar sands oil. For the past two weeks rumors have been flying that the Obama Administration will nix the much-delayed project. Some projections timed the announcement for Labor Day weekend but that appears not to have happened, so stay tuned.

Image (screenshot): via Novozymes.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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