Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks

Earlier this year, I completed several blog entries that provided brief profiles of companies developing modified microorganisms, plants or algae for improved biofuel production. The field has, of course, continued to develop in the several months since those entries, and not only have the originally-profiled companies announced new business and scientific developments, but other companies have announced their presence or have otherwise come to my attention. In view of the dozens of companies profiled in the earlier entries, it really isn’t feasible to continually update their profiles, particularly since links to company websites are included in each profile, but in this and the next several entries I will profile some of the additional companies that have entered the field or whose activities I’ve recently learned about.

Today’s posting will focus on companies developing modified plant varieties for use as biofuel feedstocks. This is a topic I may revisit in the blog in the coming months, because I have been asked to chair a session on “Energy Crops” at the 2011 World Biofuels Market Conference in Rotterdam in March. So far it is shaping up as a diverse, interesting set of presentations, and for my own talk, I’m planning to present an overview of the plant biotechnology strategies that are being used to improve energy feedstocks.  I welcome comments and suggestions about this topic in the months leading up to the March 22, 2011 session.

A large number of companies are using advanced biotechnology to improve the plant varieties that are, or might be, used as feedstocks to produce renewable fuels like ethanol or biodiesel. Many of these companies were profiled in a series of earlier blog entries, beginning at http://wp.me/pKTxe-1p.  The following are profiles of additional companies in this sector. The profiles have been adapted or excerpted from company websites and/or other publicly available information, and I don’t assume any liability for the accuracy, comprehensiveness or use of the information.

Abba Gaia is a Spanish company formed on April 2, 2008 to use biotechnology to help improve the environment.  Abba Gaia’s main business is using Nicotiana glauca for phytoremediation, and has R&D programs directed at genetic engineering to improve the plant’s ability to remove heavy metals and other contaminants from soil, water and sludge. According to the company’s website it is active in several other industrial sectors, including “renewable energy”, but the website offers no specifics about activities in the energy sector. However, in 2010, in a notification submitted to the EU, the company proposed a field test in Spain of Nicotiana glauca genetically modified as an energy crop (Notification B/ES/10/50, Spain, published 24 June 2010). According to this notification, the genetic material inserted into Nicotiana glauca is the wheat phytochelatin synthase gene under the control of the 35S promoter of cauliflower mosaic virus, to provide phytochelatin synthase and phytochelatins overexpression in the plant, along with a gene conferring resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin for selection of transformed plants. The goal of this field test is to evaluate the genetically modified line for biomass production under different cultivation situations .

Catchlight Energy is a joint venture between Chevron and Weyerhaeuser, formed in February 2008 to commercialize large scale production of liquid transportation fuels from sustainable forest-based resources. The plan was to leverage the strengths of both companies: Weyerhaeuser’s expertise in innovative land stewardship, resource management and capacity to deliver sustainable cellulose-based feedstocks at scale, and Chevron’s technology capabilities in molecular conversion, product engineering, advanced fuel manufacturing and fuels distribution. The joint venture reflects the parent companies’ shared view that cellulosic biofuels can fill an important role in diversifying the nation’s energy sources and addressing global climate change by providing a source of low-carbon transportation fuel.

Catchlight Energy’s vision is to become a major integrated producer of biofuels derived from non-food sources and to deliver renewable transportation products produced from biomass in a manner that is scalable and sustainable — both environmentally and economically. By focusing on researching and commercializing technology, Catchlight Energy hopes to help the U.S. make the move to the next generation of biofuels. The company’s research addresses a range of products including ethanol as well as gasoline and diesel hydrocarbons, and its commercial business model is expected to involve multiple pathways based on combinations of biological, chemical and thermochemical process steps.

Building on the strengths and core competencies of its parent companies, Catchlight’s R&D program is aimed at discovering, developing and/or licensing third party developed technology solutions for converting forest-based feedstocks to liquid transportation fuels. This strategy will likely involve cooperation with key technology partners having complementary interests and technology. The company says there are two main thrusts to its current research efforts: a near term focus on early commercialization opportunities for producing ethanol and a longer term focus on direct conversion of biomass to hydrocarbons. While there is a large and ready market for ethanol today, the company thinks it will be important for longer term success to expand its product portfolio to include hydrocarbons like gasoline and diesel, fuels that are fully compatible with the existing infrastructure.

Catchlight Energy intends to utilize the potential of forests to produce biomass in a sustainable manner while still maintaining supply for traditional forest products. Specifically, perennials, short rotation trees, understory crops and residuals to supplement high-value timber can be used for emerging biofuels markets, and such purpose-grown energy crops can be grown in conjunction with high-value timber. The plan is to grow alternating strips of trees and energy crops. The energy crops can be harvested annually while the trees are managed for wood products and fiber. The company will develop large-scale production capability by leveraging Weyerhaeuser’s strengths in managing large-scale ecosystems, its experience with harvest, handling and transport infrastructure, and its expertise in genetic improvement (e.g. to improve yield, product quality). The company will also aim to scale up their processes so that cellulosic ethanol can be produced in a manner that is scalable and sustainable — both environmentally and economically. In this regard, the company will capitalize on Weyerhaeuser’s vast land holdings, Chevron’s large fuel infrastructure, and the development of a cost-effective end-to-end business model, to enable the company to produce significant quantities of cellulosic biofuels.

Idén Biotechnology was founded in 2005 by members of the Carbohydrate Metabolism Research Group at the Agrobiotechnology Institute of the Spanish National Research Council. The company’s goal has been the generation, transfer, exploitation and marketing of innovative agricultural biotechnology knowledge. The company’s founding scientific team has expertise in plant and bacterial carbohydrate metabolism knowledge at a physiological, biochemical and molecular level, and have used this expertise to develop new industrial raw materials which the company says are applicable to the energy, paper, biomaterials and pharmaceutical sectors. Specific areas of research focus as the development of new plant-derived raw materials based on manipulation of carbohydrate metabolism, with applications in bioenergy, food, feed and biomaterials, or through modifications in secondary metabolism to address markets including agriculture, food, feed and biomaterials.

Among the company’s activities in the energy sector, Iden submitted a notification to EU regulatory authorities for a field test in Spain of maize plants engineered for modified lignification with the goal of improving digestibility for bioethanol production. According to Notification  B/ES/10/40, published 23 March 2010, the company planned a small field test of corn in which the gene encoding cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD), an enzyme which is involved in lignin production in the plant, was knocked down using RNA interference. In CAD-RNAi expressing plants, the enzyme CAD was shown to be inactivated. In greenhouse experiments, CAD-RNAi expressing plants showed altered lignin production and an increase in degradability for the production of ethanol in vitro as compared with wild type corn plants. The company hopes that field tests will establish that residual biomass of these plants could be of great agronomic value for more efficient ethanol fermentation.

Naturally Scientific plans to use waste CO2 to bio-manufacture fermentable sugars and pure vegetable oil from plant cell cultures to provide sustainable feedstock for bio-diesel, ethanol and “drop-in” synthetic fuel producers. In April 2010, Naturally Scientific CEO Geoff Dixon said that his company had signed its first five commercial installations, a series of five $50 million projects that would be erected in China over the next five years. In May 2010, the company announced further details about its patented solution for converting waste CO2, water and light in a photosynthetic reaction to grow palisade layer plant cell culture to produce low-cost sugar – glucose and sucrose. This natural sugar can be sold in crystallized or concentrated liquid syrup form or alternatively it is used in a second process as the necessary carbon source for vacuole cells of rapeseed (or other oil seeds) to produce pure vegetable oils and their valuable derivatives. Naturally Scientific says that its technology absorbs and fixes between 90% and 100% of the CO2 passed through it, and in using plant cell cultures, the resulting products can be produced in a safe and sustainable way that results in no indirect land use change or deforestation. Naturally Scientific has constructed a demonstration plant in Nottingham, UK which it expected to be fully operational by the end of May 2010, producing both sugars and oils. The plant is a scaled down version of a 500,000 gallon plant proving the technology, automated process control systems, yields and unit economics at commercial-scale. The company is planning a business model based on out-licensing its technology to other 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 industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, patents, technology licensing, 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 and Dr. Glass’ September 2010 talk on biotechnology regulations from the Algae Biomass Summit, along with more information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 or at www.dglassassociates.com.

Companies Developing Modified Algae for Biofuel Production

Earlier this year, I completed several blog entries that provided brief profiles of companies developing modified microorganisms, plants or algae for improved biofuel production. The field has, of course, continued to develop in the several months since those entries, and not only have the originally-profiled companies announced new business and scientific developments, but other companies have announced their presence or have otherwise come to my attention. In view of the dozens of companies profiled in the earlier entries, it really isn’t feasible to continually update their profiles, particularly since links to company websites are included in each profile, but in this and the next several entries I will profile some of the additional companies that have entered the field or whose activities I’ve recently learned about. 

A number of companies are reported to be using advanced biotechnology to improve the algal strains that are, or might be, used to produce renewable fuels like biodiesel, jet biofuel, or ethanol. Many of these companies were profiled in an earlier blog entry. The following are profiles of three additional companies in this sector, which have been adapted or excerpted from company websites and/or other publicly available information, and I don’t assume any liability for the accuracy, comprehensiveness or use of the information. 

Photon8 is a Brownsville, Texas based company that is utilizing what it calls a “financials-first” strategy, to enable technology developments capable of 100-fold reductions in capital and operating expenses for the production of fuels from algae. Locating in Brownsville gives the company access to optimal algal growth conditions and a partnership with the University of Texas-Brownsville, where the company operates its offices and labs in the university’s “International Innovation Center”.  The company has not said much publicly about its technology strategies, but it has said that it is using genetic technologies to enhance the ability of algae to produce lipids; it is developing a Parallel Film Reactor (PFRsm), with “Traveling Wave Technology” that will offer closed-system performance at lesser cost than an open system and which makes full use of injected CO2; and that it is developing strategies to remove lipids from the algae without dewatering and without killing the cell, and thereby allowing reuse of algal cells.

In October 2010, the company announced that it has succeeded in producing “drop-in” fuel components from its genetically improved algae, as determined by an outside laboratory using gas chromatography analysis for determining carbon chain length and degree of saturation. The company’s president and CEO, Brad Bartilson, has been quoted as saying “the process is simpler than those who propose producing ‘green crude’ and sending it through an oil refinery hydrotreating system. We have already achieved the productivity of 5600 gal/acre/year, and most importantly, within our confines of under $10/m2, leading to a cost of jet fuel components of less than $1.50/gallon.”

TransAlgae was founded in 2008 to commercialize biotechnologies based on development and breeding of transgenic algae to enable its cost-effective conversion into oil, protein and other co-products. TransAlgae is a registered USA company, with a research center located at the Weizmann Science Park in Rehovot, Israel. TransAlgae believes that undomesticated algae are incapable of providing cost-effective production solutions to the world’s needs, just as wild plants cannot produce foods. The company believes that meeting  feed and fossil fuel needs for both the long term and short term can only come by domesticating algae with the requisite genes by genetic engineering, to enable algae to fix large amounts of carbon dioxide into biological molecules, such as carbohydrates, protein and oil with favorable economics.

TransAlgae hopes to build the framework for algal biofuel and animal feed using genetic engineering combined with practical agricultural, industrial and economic approaches. The company’s scientific team has completed its first generation of transgenic algae, and is further developing its marine algae platform to be resistant to contamination by other algae and other organisms, reducing downtime in production facilities, as well introducing genetic failsafe mechanisms that preclude the transgenic algae from reproducing in natural ecosystems. In addition to higher productivity, the company says that genetic approach enables rapid growth, and the production of multiple high-quality products.

TransAlgae has developed novel technologies for gene insertion, has introduced into algae genes encoding resistance to herbicides that can be used to control wild algae and cyanobacteria using sub micromolar levels, and is introducing genes that control other contaminants as well as genes that prevent establishment of the transgenic algae in natural environments. On top of this platform TransAlgae is adding genes for improved protein content as well as genes encoding expensive feed additives, while modifying the algae to increase digestibility. TransAlgae is developing strains that are appropriate for different environments and system designs. By developing strains for a matrix of climates, resources and co-products, the company hopes to be able to rapidly deploy stocks worldwide, allowing its partners to meet demand and respond to changing market conditions.

In November 2009, TransAlgae announced that it had  signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Endicott Biofuels, LLC, a Houston-based, next-generation biodiesel producer, for the development of algae as a potential transportation fuel and renewable chemical feedstock source.

Viral Genetics is a biotechnology company whose primary business is the discovery and development of  immune-based therapies for HIV and AIDS using a proprietary thymus nuclear protein compound. Founded in 2000, the biotech company is researching treatments for HIV/AIDS, Lyme Disease, Strep, Staph and drug resistant tumors. The company has recently announced an expansion of its efforts to encompass work in algal biofuels. Company advisor Dr. M. Karen Newell originally of the University of Colorado and now at the Texas AgriLife Research Blacklands campus, has discovered a trigger that increases oil or lipid production in plant cells, which leads to the possibility that plant or algal cells can be manipulated to produce more oil. Viral Genetics has licensed the right to develop commercial applications for Newell’s biofuel discoveries. Newell recently received a $750,000 grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to expand research into developing plant-based fuels. Viral Genetics has the exclusive right to develop commercial applications for this technology.  The company’s CEO Haig Keledjian was quoted as saying, “this grant validates an exciting line of research into increasing yields of plant oils including algae bio-fuel and agricultural oils such as palm or corn oil,” and company advisor John Sheehan has said, “Viral Genetics is in the right place at the right time with this technology. Identifying and controlling the trigger for lipid production in algae has long been the holy grail of algal biofuels technology. Many big players are working in this field, and whoever is first to translate such a discovery into an economic process will leap frog to the front of the pack.”  

Breaking News: On December 7, 2010, just a day after I originally posted this blog entry, Viral Genetics announced that it has launched a subsidiary called VG Energy, Inc. to market the biofuel technology that I’ve described above. This subsidiary is majority-owned by Viral Genetics and its current shareholders, and Viral Genetics’ CEO Haig Keledjian will serve as CEO of the new subsidiary. According to the company’s press release, VG Energy will be marketing an algae-enhancing technology (described above) which the company says has been shown to increase the yield of oil production from algae by as much as 300%. Dr. Newell-Rogers said, “Our research seems to indicate that we can trigger plant cells to increase their fat stores. We can manipulate plant cells so that they store oil and eventually release those reserves instead of burning the fat for fuel when glucose stores are low. The end result is more oil is available for processing into a biofuel.”

According to the new company’s website, their technology is embodied in a portfolio of patents and patent applications relating to what it calls “Metabolic Disruption Technology” (“MDT”) in non-human cells. MDT encompasses the use of combinations of certain proprietary compounds and processes to change how cells use fat and sugar for energy. The MDT technology led to the yields in oil production described above, and the company says it also has the ability to increase oil storage in seeds for increased production of edible oils. VG Energy will be focusing on scaling-up the technology and seeking industry partnerships and licensing deals.

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 industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, patents, technology licensing, 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 and Dr. Glass’ September 2010 talk on biotechnology regulations from the Algae Biomass Summit, along with more information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 or at www.dglassassociates.com.