The strategies described in the earlier entries in this blog are being pursued by a number of companies in the U.S. and elsewhere to bring about improvements in the commercial production of ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels. In the next several entries, I’ll discuss the companies that are pursuing biotech strategies to produce the different classes of biofuels. In each entry I’ll focus on one industry sector, and I’ll analyze the issues facing the use of biotechnology in that sector, I’ll assess the prospects for commercial success, and I’ll provide brief profiles of the companies actively developing modified organisms or conducting biotechnology R&D within that sector.
The companies I’ll be focusing on are all in the category one can call “technology providers”, specifically biological technology providers, and these companies generally fill a well-defined niche in the industry, and their technologies play well-defined roles in the fuel production lifecycle. The existing infrastructure for production of ethanol and other biofuels includes companies across the whole spectrum of activities including growing and harvesting the feedstocks, pretreating the biomass, operating the fermentation or other conversion process, separating and purifying the resulting fuel, and finally storing, selling and transporting the fuel. The companies I’ll be profiling are all creating or developing improvements in any of three particular phases of the production process:
- improving the cellulosic or leafy plants or other vegetative material that are the feedstocks for fuel production.
- improving methods of treatment or pretreatment of the biomass.
- improving the microorganisms, algae or enzymes that perform or catalyze the fuel manufacturing process.
It is true that the biofuels industry includes technology developers other than those I’ll be profiling, particularly including companies developing improvements in chemical or physical processes that are used at various points in biofuel manufacture, but my focus here is on improved biological technologies. I would also note that many of these “biotechnology providers” are also developing technological improvements in other aspects of the production process, such as the downstream processing steps, further blurring the lines between different categories of companies. Such activities are also an example of the kinds of interesting routes to diversification that many companies are taking to maximize their chances for success in the market, a strategy I’ll discuss in later installments of the blog.
I’ll also try to observe a further distinction among the biological technology providers. Ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels can be, and have historically been, produced without the use of advanced technology, utilizing many types of organic biomass not having any special properties (notably including waste materials of many kinds) and utilizing naturally-occurring, non-selected varieties of microorganisms or algae. For the most part I will not discuss those companies in the biofuels business that are using or selling nonproprietary components, naturally occurring microorganisms, or traditionally-bred plant varieties, and instead I will be directing my attention to those companies that are using or developing proprietary compositions, methods and techniques using genetic engineering or other advanced biotechnology. However, this is not a bright line distinction, and some of the companies profiled, particularly in the algae sector, are using naturally occurring organisms that have been selected or enhanced using traditional techniques rather than by genetic engineering. With regard to the microorganism and algae companies, I will generally include a company if the organism central to its commercial process is genetically modified, selected or enhanced in any way, or is otherwise “proprietary” to the company. With regard to new plant feedstocks, I will not include companies that are developing or selling plant varieties developed using conventional crop breeding methods, but only those that are developing genetically engineered plants, or that are using biotech methodologies to aid or enhance traditional breeding.
The entries that follow will summarize the following sectors of the industry:
- Modified microorganisms for ethanol production.
- Modified microorganisms for butanol or isobutanol production.
- Modified microorganisms (including “synthetic” microbes) for production of biodiesel, jet fuels, and other petroleum-based fuels.
- Use of modified microorganisms or plants to manufacture industrial enzymes.
- Modified algae for biofuel production (biodiesel, jet fuel, ethanol and other fuels).
- Modification of traditional plant feedstocks (e.g. for ethanol production).
- Modification of new or alternative plant feedstocks for production of ethanol or biodiesel.
The company profiles in the entries that will follow are based on publicly-available information, and include descriptions that have been adapted or excerpted from company websites. URLs will be provided for all profiled companies.
D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in several fields of biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of nearly thirty years in the biotech industry, with expertise in patents, technology licensing, industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, and market and technology assessments. This blog provides back-up and expanded content to complement a presentation Dr. Glass made at the EUEC 2010 conference on February 2, 2010 entitled “Prospects for the Use of Genetic Engineering in Biofuel Production.” The slides from that presentation are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99.