Biométhodes, a French biotechnology company in Evry, has signed an exclusive and worldwide option-to-license agreement with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. (VTIP) for multiple technologies for converting biomass to bioethanol and biohydrogen.
The processes were developed by Percival Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. (Earlier post, earlier post.) Biométhodes plans to establish an integrated biorefinery pilot plant in Virginia to advance the process for the conversion of biomass into ethanol and co-products, focusing especially on biomass pretreatment. The process for transformation of biomass into hydrogen will be developed in France and will be validated through a biohydrogen fuel cell prototype and small-scale model car.
Zhang’s process for the pretreatment of biomass to release sugars for subsequent fermentation into ethanol integrates three technologies: cellulose solvent pretreatment, concentrated acid saccharification, and organosolv.
Instead of a high pressure system that operates at between 150º and 250º C, Zhang’s reaction operates at atmospheric pressure and 50º C (120º F) to pre-treat residue to free the solid polymeric sugars. The pretreatment process also results in no sugar degradation and separates other profitable byproducts, such as lignin and acetic acid.
Biométhodes plans to increase hydrolysis efficiency, optimize production of enzymes, reduce enzyme cost, and then do industrial scale testing with a commercial process deployment.
The pilot plant will integrate two major technologies – Virginia Tech’s pretreatment process, which breaks down the biomass, and Biométhodes’ hydrolysis enzyme optimization technology to improve the cellulose degradation into fermentable sugars. Our strategy is to enable next generation of biocatalysts and biofuels by co-developing pre-industrial processes, to be further integrated by industrial partners.—Gilles Amsallem, Biométhodes CEO
Locating the plant in Virginia will enhance the collaboration with Zhang as the process is optimized, Amsallem said. Furthermore, in the US, the time to market is shorter for ethanol, he noted. However, the European Union is very active in funding and developing hydrogen as a fuel.
Using synthetic biology approaches, Zhang and colleagues from Oak Ridge National Lab and the University of Georgia proved that a combination of 13 enzymes form an unnatural enzymatic pathway to completely convert polysaccharides—e.g., starch and cellulose—and water into hydrogen at a yield higher than the theoretical yield of biological hydrogen fermentations.
The vision is for the hydrogen to be used by fuel cells to create electricity. Water byproduct would then be recycled to the starch reactor, to create a very clean process. Laboratory tests confirm that it all takes place at low temperature— about 30° C (86° F)—and normal atmospheric pressure.
Biométhodes will scale up the proven laboratory-scale process to deliver fuel cells, a model car as an initial prototype, a battery prototype, and, in the end, a car prototype. According to the company’s plan, the goal is to enter into co-development agreements with hydrogen fuel cell companies. These agreements will aim to develop the Biométhodes hydrogen-on demand technology implemented into prototypes that can be tested with, and ultimately incorporated into, the design of commercial fuel cells for portable and other mobile applications.
Biométhodes is an 11-year-old industrial biotechnology company which developed and patented two core technologies. Massive Mutagenesis is the only combinatorial site-directed mutagenesis technique, allowing the company to semi-rationally design and construct vast, yet focused, genetic libraries. One billion nature- and position-controlled mutations are routinely generated within a 36 hour time-frame.
THR is a unique en masse selection scheme invented in 2006 that enables the direct selection of thermostable variants among protein repertoires. The company is currently working on integrating both in-licensed and in-house invented whole-cell diversity creation and screening techniques. These, Biométhodes says, should prove particularly relevant in the biofuels domain and be visible publicly by late 2008.