Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Scale-up issues in biofuels

Note the post by Zachary Russ titled For Biofuels, Escaping from Titer Binds Is Key which includes the text:

With new technologies such as novel hybrid strains or different biochemical pathways the results in the lab bench can be very deceptive. The move from a 1 liter desktop fermenter to a 1,000 liter tank to a 100,000 liter plant usually entails several unforeseen difficulties—differences in pressure, mixing, heat dissipation, and plumbing abound. (...)

Several biofuel companies have suffered from technical and financial scale-up troubles. Range Fuels went bankrupt trying to fix its process problems, KiOR is still getting loans to pay for its production facility, and Amyris (farnesene diesel) saw its stock price plummet after it had to drop its farnesene-production estimates. Companies such as Gevo also scaled back their technological expectations, focusing less on the use of cellulosic sources (grasses, etc.) and more on producing specialty fuels with common sugary feedstocks and retrofitted ethanol plants.

For Amyris, LS9 (diesel/jet fuel), Codexis (ethanol), and other synthetic biology-based biofuel companies, putting off the scale-up makes sense. Alternative products are where their platforms can truly shine: engineered organisms (or their enzyme products) are excellent at green chemistry and manufacture of commodity and specialty chemicals such as biodegradable plastics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and flavors/fragrances. Though the market value may be much smaller, so is the competition and the volume of product demanded.


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