Will the new fermentation technologies completely shatter
preconceptions about biofuels and bio-based products – and redefine the
way in which Western Civ approaches the production of fuel, food, feed,
and fiber? The new Brew Barons are working hard to make it so.
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
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
” (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
– 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
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
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 Renewables (BFRE.OB)
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.
, 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
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
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 75⁰C. 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.
Biofuels Digest 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
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. Their feedstock flexibility
allows for enormous geographical and economic advantages over other
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. Their microorganisms
are specific to ethanol production and our technology has the ability
to extract the entire energy value of the feedstock. Finally, they are
not dependent on expensive enzymes or chemicals and pre-treatment costs
are significantly lower than any non-gasification based technology
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. They develop biological systems
capable of producing biobased chemicals from a wide assortment of
feedstocks including refined sugars from starch and biomass-derived
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 their
recent partnership with Waste
. 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
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.
Isobutanol also has a market as a chemical solvent. The
opportunity for isobutylene spans many C4 markets in jet fuel,
paraxylene, PET and other multi-billion dollar applications in fuels,
synthetic rubber, chemicals and plastics.
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
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