The Brew Barons: Masters of Advanced Fermentation, Driving the Redefinition of Biofuels: Pt 1
Will the new fermentation technologies completely shatter preconceptions about biofuels and bio-based products and redefine the way in which we approaches the production of fuel, food, feed and fiber?
Miami, FL, USA — The Regents of the University of Washington generally only admit under conditions of duress – waterboarding is typically employed – that I graduated from their institution. At issue? What they felt was an inappropriate level of focus on beer and other fermentation products as a subject of personal discovery disguised as undergraduate research.
They’ve been laughing in Seattle since I left, but unintentionally I may just have the last laugh. It may be the case that fermentation, in its modern incarnation, may indeed be the key to saving Western civilization from itself.
Is there enough energy, food, fiber and feed for all? Advances in industrial fermentation – a/k/a an incredulous “you’re making what? from what? using what? – will be the key to answering that question.
The stars of this drama are using everything from sorbitol to steel waste gases, grass clippings, pulp mill black liquor, sludge, cane trash, vinasse, leftover chili, and potato peels that never found a home.
They are using two basic strategies – fermenting liquids and, more unusually, fermenting gases too. Most are fermenting liquids; companies utilizing gas-phase fermentation, like Coskata, LanzaTech and IneosBio, are just now proceeding towards demonstration at scale.
Their microorganisms have become so focused and well trained that they are creating phosphate-free detergents, ethanol, organic acids, diesels, gasoline, base and novel chemicals, even synthetic anti-malarials. Just today, Codexis announced that it has developed a process to capture CO2 from coal-fired power flue stacks by fermenting the waste gases.
Intriguingly, researchers from Cornell this week reported, in “Bacterial Community Structures Are Unique and Resilient in Full-Scale Bioenergy Systems” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb. 22, 2011), analysis of 400,000 gene sequences of the microbes in the sludge at nine Budweiser facilities that treat wastewater in bioreactors. Anheuser-Busch InBev recoups 20 percent of its heat energy use through the methane produced by these nicrobes, saving the company millions of dollars every year. The intrigue: the Cornell engineers are looking to prevent methane production by the microbes, and instead, to shape the bacterial communities to produce carboxylates, which are a precursor to the alkanes found in fuels.
“We are going to shape these communities so they start making what we want,” said Cornell’s Largus Angenent, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering.
Now that’s the, ahem, spirit. That’s the outlook that why these fermentation-meisters are responsible – along with the Kings of Catalysis – for shaking up the world in a very positive way.
The New Brew Barons
They are the new Brew Barons. In an earlier age, they might have been content to make White Lightning, or craft brews. Today their targets are jet fuel, renewable gasoline, renewable diesel, ethanol, a boatload of renewable chemicals, plus feed grains, food oils, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and more.
One thing is for sure. Based on the advances they are making, anyone who begins a sentence with “biofuels are…” isn’t up on the science. They are too turbulent to be characterized – too fast-moving to be catalogued or pigeon-holed. The nature, potential, and value of biofuels are changing nearly as rapidly as feedstocks in a fermenter.
Who are they? Let’s look at some of the best and the brightest.
An interesting approach. Algenol are utilizing algae to make starches, which they then ferment into ethanol.
Algenol Biofuels and Dow Chemical are in the process of constructing a $50 million pilot algae biofuels plant in Freeport, Texas. The plant will be located with Dow’s existing chemicals complex, and will supply CO2 as well as land for the pilot algae facility. Dow said that it was interested in Algenol’s ability to use algae to produce ethanol, which could be used as a base for making ethylene, which is in turn a feedstock for many types of chemicals. The plant is designed to produce 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year at a target price of between $1.00 and $1.25 per gallon, according to CEO Paul Woods, who added that groundbreaking is expected to commence this year. Traditionally, chemical companies have been using natural gas as an ethylene feedstock.
It was an unheralded IPO – a lot of people passed on it at $16, now the stock is riding at $32 less than six months later, and the company just received this week its first purchase order for Amyris renewable squalane. The order was generated through collaboration with Amyris’s partner, Soliance, a leading green ingredient provider to the cosmetic industry based in France.
Last week, Amyris announced that it had completed multiple runs of its fermentation process using its engineered yeast to produce renewable farnesene, in 100,000 and 200,000 liter capacity fermenters. These runs were completed through contract manufacturing operations in North America and Europe.
The results of these fermentation runs, including yields, were consistent with previous runs at smaller scale. Amyris expects to commence commercial production of Biofene in the second quarter of 2011 and ramp production through manufacturing arrangements with entities including Biomin and Tate & Lyle.
In addition, Amyris and Grupo São Martinho, a leading sugar and ethanol producer in Brazil, have commenced site preparation on their joint venture production facility at Usina São Martinho. All of these facilities will utilize fermentors with capacities ranging between 100,000 and 600,000 liters.
Amyris is building an integrated renewable products company by applying its industrial synthetic biology platform to provide alternatives to select petroleum-sourced products used in specialty chemical and transportation fuel markets worldwide. They genetically modify microorganisms, primarily yeast, and use them as living factories in established fermentation processes to convert plant-sourced sugars into potentially thousands of target molecules. Their first commercialization efforts have been focused on a molecule called farnesene, which forms the basis for a wide range of products varying from specialty chemical applications such as detergents, cosmetics, perfumes and industrial lubricants, to transportation fuels such as diesel.
They have developed genetic engineering and screening technologies that enable us to modify the way microorganisms, or microbes, process sugar. By controlling these metabolic pathways, they design microbes to serve as living factories, or biorefineries, to produce target molecules that we seek to commercialize. Their platform utilizes proprietary high-throughput processes to create and test as many as 1,000 yeast strains a day in order to select those yeast strains which are most efficient. They first developed and applied our technology to create microbial strains to produce artemisinic acid, a precursor of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. This work was funded by a five year grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Institute for OneWorld Health. We have granted a royalty-free license to this technology to sanofi-aventis for the commercialization of artemisinin-based drugs.
BlueFire often gets overlooked because they are not using enzymes for the crucial hydrolysis step, and missing out on the attention that is generated by companies like Codexis, genencor and Novozymes for their enzyme customers. But fermenting their acid hydrolysis brother indeed they are, and operating a successful, proven technology for a number of years now.
Next step – they are awaiting loan guarantees – like Fulcrum, BP Biofuels, POET and a number of others – in order to proceeed with their Fulton,Mississippi-based cellulosic ethanol project. The facility will be engineered and built by Wanzek Construction, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of MasTec, Inc. (MTZ) , for a fixed price of $296 million which includes an approximately $100 million biomass power plant as part of the facility.
In recent months, BlueFire had also announced the securing of 15-year offtake and feedstock contracts with credit worthy partners, and has thereby became the first advanced biofuels company to secure all three legs of the requirements generally associated with DOE loan guarantees. BlueFire is working with both the USDA and DOE loan programs, and over the past three years has secured $88 million in DOE grants.
Last month, BlueFire Renewables announced that Lincoln Park Capital Fund will invest up to $10 million in the company. Upon signing the agreement, LPC invested $150,000 in BlueFire as an initial investment under the agreement at $.35 per share together with warrants to purchase an equivalent number of shares at an exercise price of $.55 per share. BlueFire intends to use the proceeds of this transaction for general corporate purposes and to aid in the closing of additional financing for the Fulton project.
Cobalt Technologies is commercializing cellulosic biobutanol, a versatile platform molecule for the renewable and profitable replacement of petrochemicals and petroleum. The Company’s technology efficiently converts diverse non-food feedstocks – initially, hemicellulose extracts from woody biomass and sugar cane bagasse – into biobutanol. Cobalt will offer complete systems for biomass power facilities and retrofitting pulp and paper plants with a cost-effective biorefinery module, taking advantage of benefits of co-location (feedstock supply, logistics, permits) while enhancing overall facility returns. Feedstock for the biorefinery will be low-value hemicellulose extracted from woody biomass (or bagasse) that otherwise would be burned for energy.
Biobutanol can be used as is in paints, coatings and other chemical products, a 1.2 billion gallon, $6 billion market. It can also be converted via known chemistry into a wide range of high value products, including 1-butene, isobutene and butyraledehyde derivatives, replacing petrochemicals and accessing a 67 billion gallon, $300 billion market, and full performance jet fuel and diesel. Biobutanol can also be blended with gasoline, diesel and ethanol to reduce emissions.
Engineered to achieve low costs through high productivity, energy efficiency and the use of low-cost feedstock, Cobalt is making biobutanol and its derivatives a cost effective substitute to petroleum-based materials.
Codexis’ platform is based on proprietary directed evolution biocatalysis technology. Codexis manufactures industrial biocatalysts for use in creating faster, more efficient and environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes and industrial scale in the bioindustrials and pharmaceuticals markets.
At the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit this week in Washington, DC, Codexis will announce significant progress towards developing economical, commercial scale technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. The program is supported by an ARPA-E Recovery Act program grant.
The grant supports development of custom enzymes to decrease energy needed to capture CO2 from coal-fired power plants. Enzymes developed by Codexis under the grant have been shown to be functional and stable in relatively inexpensive and energy efficient solvents for 24 hours at temperatures up to 75?C. Use of these solvents with fully developed enzymes is expected to reduce the energy needed to capture CO2 within the plant by 30%.
These reductions are possible through development of customized carbonic anhydrase (CA) enzymes, or biocatalysts. CA is an enzyme which catalyzes the transfer of carbon dioxide in nature – for example, CA enables carbon dioxide to be released from blood into the lungs during respiration. However, the natural enzyme does not function at the high temperatures and harsh industrial conditions in coal-fired power plant flue gas. In research being presented this week, enzyme performance has been improved by about 100,000 times over natural forms of the CA enzyme.
We profiled Codexis most recently in “Resistance is Futile: Codexis and the chase for low-cost cellulosic feedstocks“.
Coskata was in the news most recently with the securing of a massive (though conditional, subject to closing) loan guarantee from the USDA that will power the company towrds its first commercial demonstration.
It’s an intriguing technology (that finds itself currently entangled in a lawsuit with INEOS), that employs a three step process: gasification, biofermentation, and separation. During gasification, the feedstock is thermally broken down to form synthesis gas (syngas). During the second step, fermentation, the syngas is sent to a proprietary bioreactor where patented microorganisms consume the gas and produce ethanol. The last step of the Coskata process uses conventional distillation and dehydration technology to separate the ethanol from the water, resulting in pure, fuel-grade ethanol.
Coskata’s feedstock flexible process can utilize virtually any carbonaceous feedstock, including energy crops such as: switchgrass and miscanthus; wood chips, forestry products, corn stover, bagasse and other typical agricultural wastes; municipal solid waste and industrial organic waste like petroleum coke. Our feedstock flexibility allows for enormous geographical and economic advantages over other fuel technologies.
Coskata’s hybrid process, combining gasification and biofermentation, leads to several competitive advantages in terms of efficiency, affordability, and flexibility.
Coskata’s highly efficient hybrid technology allows for one of the lowest costs of production in the industry. Our microorganisms are specific to ethanol production and our technology has the ability to extract the entire energy value of the feedstock. Finally, we are not dependent on expensive enzymes or chemicals and pre-treatment costs are significantly lower than any non-gasification based technology available today.
Second, Coskata’s ethanol conversion process is one of the most feedstock flexible technologies among advanced biofuel startups and is able to create a high quality fuel from virtually any carbon-containing material. This feedstock flexibility also leads to geographic flexibility, allowing the company to build facilities virtually anywhere around the world where feedstock is available.
Known primarily in the biofuels neck of the woods as an enzyme supplier, Genencor picked up a 2010 Biofuels Digest Award for the development of its C5 BioIsopren platform for use in the production of branched chain hydrocarbons, C10 gasoline; C15 biodiesel and jet fuel blend stocks that they collectively refer to as BioIsoFuels.
Isoprene is an important commodity chemical used in a wide range of industrial applications ranging from the production of synthetic rubber for tires and coatings to use in adhesives and development of specialty elastomers. Current production of isoprene is derived entirely from petrochemical sources. There is an increasing global need for more isoprene and a simultaneous environmental imperative to reduce green house gases, both of which can be achieved by a high efficiency fermentation based process for polymer grade isoprene production. BioIsoprene™ will have broader commercial applications beyond the biochemical uses of isoprene in synthetic rubber, adhesives and specialty elastomers. As a C5 hydrocarbon, BioIsoprene™ has inherent fuel properties and represents a key biobased intermediate that can be converted to a drop-in transportation fuel additive using chemical catalysis to C10 and C15 biobased hydrocarbon fuels, thus addressing performance gasoline, jet fuel and biodiesel markets.
Genencor develops enzymes and enzymes systems that enable starch as well as a wide range of cellulosic biomass processing to deliver fermentable feedstocks for use in the production of biochemicals and biofuels. Feedstocks may include; corn, wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, triticale and rice. We develop biological systems capable of producing biobased chemicals from a wide assortment of feedstocks including refined sugars from starch and biomass-derived feedstocks.
Genomatica’s technology is used to make major intermediate and basic chemicals in a direct, one-step process. This one-step process means fewer processing steps, lower capital costs, greater efficiency, and reduced overall cost. We are able to go directly from renewable feedstocks to the product of interest, as demonstrated with our recent partnership with Waste Management. Genomatica’s technology offers sustainable chemicals at lower costs than petroleum-based alternatives. The unique integration of technologies cuts years and millions of dollars of R&D investment from developing bio-based processes for making low-cost chemicals. The organisms and complete manufacturing processes for Genomatica’s targeted products are developed with high productivity due to our platform.
Their platform has been proven through an astonishing 2.5 year timeline to pilot production for1,4-butanediol, or BDO; and through $20 million of industry and government collaborations. The platform allows them to cost-effectively perform high-throughput ‘in-silico’ (computer-based) design and testing of highly-optimized organisms, manufacturing processes and economics. This results in more efficient, focused lab work, much faster product development and time to commercial-scale manufacturing, lower-cost production, and de-risking of the process.
Another celebrated IPO – Gevo just debuted at $15 not too long ago, but is already trading at a 30% premium, riding the NASDAQ currently at $19.71 after flirting briefly with $22.
Gevo has two proprietary technologies that combine to make it possible to retrofit existing ethanol plants to produce isobutanol, a four carbon alcohol which serves as a hydrocarbon platform molecule. We have developed a robust industrial scale yeast biocatalyst to produce isobutanol without typical byproducts operating at parameters equivalent to commercial ethanol producers. The second piece of technology is a separations unit that operates continuously and removes isobutanol during fermentation. This helps reduce distillation requirements, thereby reducing process energy consumption.
Gevo will produce isobutanol, a four carbon alcohol that can be dehydrated using well known technology to isobutylene, a C4 hydrocarbon. Isobutanol has 30% more energy content than ethanol and can be blended into gasoline without modifying automobile engines. Isobutanol is a low RVP blendstock and less soluble in water than ethanol. It can be transported in pipelines and be dispensed in existing retail pumps. Isobutanol is a biofuel that carries a RIN value of 1.3 and It can be an advanced biofuel from corn if it achieves a 50% GHG reduction.
Gevo has a number of off-take agreements and has announced non-binding letters of intent to supply Total for gasoline blendstock; United Airlines for biojet; Lanxess for butyl rubber; and, Toray industries for p-xylene.
INEOS Bio was most recently in the news with the groundbreaking at its 8 million gallon per year advanced bioenergy facility in Vero Beach, Florida. The facility will also produce up to 6 MW of renewable power from municipal solid waste and yard and wood residues, enough to power more than 4,000 residences. INEOS New Planet BioEnergy is a joint venture between INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy, which received a $50 million grant from the DOE last year towards construction of the INEOS New Planet demonstration plant.
The INEOS Bio process is a combined thermochemical and biochemical technology for ethanol and power production. It is comprised of four main steps: (1) feedstock gasification, (2) synthesis gas fermentation (3) ethanol recovery and (4) power generation. The process utilizes a patented fermentation process, where cleaned, cooled synthesis gas is converted selectively into ethanol by a naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria. The process has been under development for 18 years.
Last June, INEOS Bio received a $10.8 million in grants from the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Regional Development Agency One North East towards the construction costs of its waste-to-ethanol BioEnergy Process Technology project at the INEOS Seal Sands site in the Tees Valley. The 7.9 Mgy (30 million liter) project will also produce 3 MW of renewable power and will be completed in 2012. The plant which will utilize 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste (which it will convert at a 25 percent yield) will create 40 permanent and 350 construction jobs, and will become the base of a larger commercial INEOS Bio plant that will open in 2015.
The information and views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Peter O’Connor