by Bob Kodrzycki, PhD
Originally published 8 Feb 2018 in Biofuels Digest
Definitions are tricky. They tend to change with the times depending on perspective and technology. Take the biorefinery for example. At the simplest level (Figure 1) a biorefinery converts biomass feedstock into a variety of products by means of a reactor.
Most of us would probably agree that facility that converts cornstarch to ethanol is a biorefinery. Likewise, feeding wood chips into a gasifier to produce syngas and heat would also fall within the bounds of the biorefinery definition. Or even the production of succinic acid by fermentation.
What about other types of biorefineries? A campfire converts wood into heat, gases and char using a thermochemical reaction. A compost pile converts assorted biomass into heat, gasses and fertilizer via microbial action. A cow converts grass into meat, methane, milk and manure through an integrated process.
Where is this going?
The point is that biorefineries are on a trajectory that will challenge and expand our thinking of what they are, what they do and how they do it.
This is important in how businesses and investors approach the next wave of building and financing biorefineries.
Drivers of Change
Drivers of change in manufacturing can be thought of as the interface between need, opportunity
Need as a driver can come from environmental regulation, demand of growing populations, social pressure and a variety of other factors. These drivers, combined with opportunity and technology often create an environment for innovation and are a major factor in getting a project funded.
Opportunity, such as the availability of a new feedstock or the possibility of combining technologies can lead to very interesting outcomes.
Technology alone is usually not enough to develop a market. But combined with a need and opportunity the combination can gain a foothold and lead to a revolution. As we’ve seen in the pages of Biofuels Digest, recent advances in gene-related technologies are poised to revolutionize the way biorefineries operate. These advances will also lead to expansion the scale and scope of biorefinery-based production.
We’re Gonna have a Synthetic Biology Revolution
Revolutions often start small and build tremendous momentum. Think about how silicon chips led to advances in computing, software and to current trends in robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet-of-Things.
We are in a genetic revolution that is, and will continue to, influence how food, fuels, chemicals and materials are produced. Driven by the need to sustainably meet the basic living requirement of growing population and limited resources, the revolution is occurring through a confluence of opportunity and technology. The genetic revolution started when the ability to “cut and paste” DNA, known as recombinant DNA, occurred in the early 1970’s. This spark led to enhanced ability to both analyze genetics and build custom DNA molecules and genetic engineering. Half a century of creative thinking application of computing power has brought us to the current state of synthetic biology.
In the same way that software and applications are becoming integrated into every part of our lives we will see that biology, enabled by synthetic biology, will transform manufacturing and agriculture.
Synthetic biology is a confluence of technology that goes beyond simple genetically modified organisms (GMOs) of the past. The ability to make precision edits in DNA sequence using CRISPR and related techniques is being combined with sophisticated computer analysis like machine learning that can be used to “evolve” genes. Natural evolution takes place over millions of years, selecting mutated genes that are best-for-the-immediate task. Synthetic biology uses a variety of gene alteration methods and speeds up the process, allowing millions of mutations to be tested over weeks or months. Because it’s being applied to a closed system, like a better enzyme for ethanol fermentation, these improved enzymes can then be used to speed up reactions or to expand functionality.
But synthetic biology, like nature, does not live in a vacuum. Combine the ability to engineer genes with advances in nanomaterials, microfluidics, robotics and artificial intelligence and truly revolutionary results are not out of the question and an entirely different biorefinery is possible. Now functionality can be either scaled down to micro scale and even be used to create complex functionality. Machines will mimic living tissues, essential collections of enzymes, nanomaterials and microfluidics that are controlled by an intelligence system.
One example is the confluence of technologies being used to create biorefineries for “clean meat” production like beef, poultry and seafood. The twist here is that these products are not only muscle cells that are being manipulated to replicate the taste of animal flesh but they are also employing 3D printing to make edible scaffolding upon which the meat cells can self-assemble to make a product that looks and feels like the original.
The future can be a long way out or it can be tomorrow. It’s important to keep a perspective on what’s possible and the time required between a discovery and development of a commercial product. Nothing will kill your investment pitch faster than proposing an amazing technology improvement without showing how it bolts-on or drops-in to an existing process. Remember that even synthetic biology needs to be compatible with existing production systems and logistics chains.
It’s exciting to imaging a full-on, synthetic biology-enabled world where any feedstock can be processed into all manner of useful products in a simple kitchen appliance and no doubt we will see such innovation in time.
But lets take a step back to 2018 and examine the trends in synthetic biology that we will see in the foreseeable future.
Synthetic Biology Impacts on the Biorefinery
The following short list of examples is all built on the current reality and some are commercially viable. Think about how refinement will impact the next few years…sort of like the difference between first generation cell phones and what we use now. Look for greater variety, increased scale and increasing specialization.
Gene editing technology like CRISPR will replace conventional genetic engineering (GMO) leading to:
- Easier regulatory approval for modified plants and microbes.
- Faster and cheaper development of improved feedstocks.
- Custom-built fermentative microbes.
- More efficient and faster enzymes.
- Greater range of biorefinery products.
- High value chemical production at small scale.
Molecule screening, DNA sequencing and machine learning software will merge into systems of identifying bio-based products that replace synthetic chemicals.
- Secreted chemicals from microbes.
- Faster cycle for new product development.
- Mixtures of microbes in reactor vessels.
- Direct application of microbes to crops in the field.
3-D printing and microfluidics integration into biorefineries will enable:
- Long chain and branched molecules.
- Progressive reactions.
- Formation of complex structures.
The list goes on and the possibilities are endless given a long enough time frame. The point here is that the future biorefinery will be a stepwise evolution of the current biorefinery…except that the speed of discovery and it’s implementation will be enabled by the synthetic biology revolution.