Just like the hundreds of small oil companies drilling for crude across the U.S. early last century, high-tech startups are scrambling for a piece of the biofuel landscape, which is already worth billions of dollars. However, ethanol, biodiesel and biogasoline are yet to be proven as cost-effective, environmentally friendly solutions.
For ethanol, the battle for production efficiency has moved to the microbe level. Novozymes and Qteros are two of the companies offering a microscopic solution to the sustainable energy problem.
Enzyme bioreactors at Novozyme's production facility in Kalundborg, Denmark.
Novozymes has been producing enzymes for industrial applications since 1925 when it launched trypsin, an enzyme used to soften leather. Today the company produces 47 percent of the world’s industrial enzymes, which are used to improve process efficiency by increasing the rates of chemical reactions: detergents that make your whites whiter and your colors brighter; baker’s dough that is easier to handle and more stable; animal feed that pigs and poultry could not otherwise break down; and now ethanol production with a higher yield and lower cost.
The company currently has six enzymes on the market that are used specifically for first-generation corn- (starch) based ethanol production. But this method of producing ethanol has been limited by Congress due to the adverse effect it has on food prices. Through the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, incentives have been put in place for the production of cellulosic ethanol, or ethanol produced from non-food feedstocks such as corn stover, switchgrass and woodchips.
This second-generation ethanol process, however, has a number of disadvantages. Obtaining the cellulose from the feedstock has proven to be much more difficult than extracting sugars from corn, sugar cane, wheat or any of the other traditional feedstocks. This results in a more intensive pretreatment process that typically involves the use of acids.
The conversion of cellulose to sugars also calls for enzymes that are optimized for this process. To find these enzymes, companies and researchers are going on biological scavenger hunts to search for microbes and enzymes with unique characteristics.
Magnified Q Microbes™, found in the mud near the Quabbin Reservoir.
A Consolidated Process
As part of a microbe discovery program at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Susan Leschine, Qteros founder and chief scientist, hit the jackpot when her students at the university unearthed a microbe found in mud near the Quabbin reservoir. But it took some time for them to realize what they had discovered, according to Qteros CEO Bill Frey.
“We didn’t really understand it straight away. Eventually we recognized that it was making ethanol—that was the lightbulb moment.”
Testing showed that not only did the microbe break down plant materials by generating its own enzymes, but it also fermented the sugars to create ethanol. Dubbed the Q Microbe™, it was able to combine the yeast component of the conventional bioconversion process with the enzyme component. The result was a three-step process instead of four, which Qteros now refers to as the C3 process.
Frey is confident that this technology can greatly reduce the costs associated with producing second-generation ethanol.
“We’re not talking about a marginal cost improvement here. The Department of Energy technology roadmap indicated that a C3-type process would clearly take out more than 30 percent of the cost.”
Bioreactors at the Qteros laboratory in Marlborough, MA.
Qteros claims that a large part of the savings its technology offers is through eliminating the need for expensive enzymes, an idea that is not sitting well with enzyme manufacturers.
Novozymes vice president of biofuels research and development, Stein Skjold-Jorgensen, disputes the idea that enzymes are expensive and thinks that Qteros has their work cut out commercializing the C3 process.
“Enzymes have been used for a long time. They are a tried-and-tested technology, and we are able to meet the demand for cost-effective enzymes. It is a misconception that they are expensive.
“The question is whether Qteros can produce the microbes as efficiently. It will be very challenging. Also, this [Q Microbe™] technology doesn’t overcome the pretreatment component of the process,” Skjold-Jorgensen adds.
The C3 process does require pretreatment, but Frey believes that the Q Microbe™ allows for a less intensive, more environmentally friendly pretreatment.
“The enzyme processes use acid or ammonia pretreatments, and a lot of care needs to be taken to ensure that these chemicals don’t escape. Later this year, we will use our pilot plant to test our pretreatment process, which will not involve the use of a weak acid like a lot of the other processes.”
Frey also feels that in this case, there is no tried-and-tested technology. “Currently there is not a good economical solution when it comes to second-generation ethanol.”
Novozymes prelaunched its second-generation ethanol production enzymes, named Celic CTec and Celic HTec, in February of this year for use at a number of pilot plants, including that of ethanol giant POET LLC.
“The feedback we are receiving indicates that this is the best product out there at the moment,” boasts Skjold-Jorgensen.< p/>
One thing that Frey and Skjold-Jorgensen can agree on is that a number of biofuel solutions will be required in the future to meet the demand currently filled by the use of fossil fuels.
“There will be a diverse set of energy solutions. It’s not a winner-takes-all scenario,” notes Frey.
Skjold-Jorgensen thinks that ethanol does, however, have one big advantage over biodiesel and biogasoline. “Ethanol already has a first-generation process. Countries like Brazil have a cost-effective sugar-based ethanol industry complete with a distribution system. About 50 percent of the fuel used in Brazil is ethanol.”
Cash To Splash
Being a large, established company, Novozymes is well-positioned to further develop its technology and fund the construction of a new manufacturing plant in Blair, NE—a location that is central to a number of cellulosic ethanol pilot plants—thanks in part to a grant from the Department of Energy for its 100-strong research and development staff.
Qteros on the other hand is currently trying to obtain an $18 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a full-scale microbe manufacturing plant. At a time when private equity is hard to come by and tech companies are relying more heavily on government funding, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Qteros needs this grant. But not according to the stereotypically positive CEO.
“A lot of groups are applying for the grants. I think that we will make a good case, but if we are not successful, the funding will just come from somewhere else,” says Frey.
The Blue-Green Solution
The use of algae to produce biofuels is creating a lot of excitement and debate in the bioenergy space. Companies like Algenol Biofuels are creating ethanol by exposing bioreactors containing blue-green algae and saltwater to sunlight, and adding CO2. Photosynthesis results in the absorption of CO2, as well as the creation of O2 and sugar, which is then converted to ethanol. However, the use of open bioreactors poses problems in that the algae are exposed to contaminants, disease and other microbes that feed on algae.
Solazyme has taken a slightly different approach that avoids the use of these open bioreactor ponds. Using algae that are less reliant on sunlight, sugars can be converted to biodiesel through the use of pressurized reactors. By converting the sugars to biodiesel instead of ethanol, the company avoids the need for an energy-intensive distillation process. In 2008, Chevron, the second biggest oil producer in the U.S., signed up with Solazyme to develop the industrial process required to produce large amounts of biodiesel from algae.