How laboratory information management systems can prepare labs for biofuels growth

May 14, 2014 |

By Colin Thurston, Informatics Project Director, Thermo Fisher Scientific

With dramatic drops in U.S. energy imports, a clear sign of our growing energy independence, it would appear that renewables investment is at risk, including within the biofuels market. There’s certainly some evidence to support this, but if declining or stalled investment is predicated on the limited potential of existing technology, much of which still relies on biomass (edible, such as corn, or non-edible, such as wood pulp), the biofuels industry may actually be undergoing a natural transition instead of a decline.

That we’re in a natural transition is echoed in a recent comment by Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London. According to Labastida, “Growth opportunities for first-generation biofuels are close to exhausted, while a series of next-generation technologies are not quite ready.”  These next-generation technologies, which include synthetic biological alternatives, may hold the key for a more rapid progression of biofuels production.

If continuing investment in biofuels start-ups and by large energy producers worldwide is any indication, we’re due for more – not less – innovation. And as this innovation transforms production so too will it transform the in-house and contract laboratories that support the biofuels industry.

The Complexity of Next-generation Biofuels

Although generally proven commercially, first-generation biofuels, primarily ethanol, are widely considered too costly to produce to be viable in the long term. More recently, cheaper feedstock have driven significant interest/investment in second-generation biofuels, but despite much lower feedstock costs and greater efficiencies, the limitations of ethanol may be too much to overcome. The future, many believe, may turn out to be biobutanol, which has higher energy content, is more versatile and can, under the right circumstances, be produced more efficiently.

As scientists turn their attention toward biobutanol, the effort becomes one of reengineering microbes. The microbe of choice has long been bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, but its inherent limitations have many researchers and businesses looking toward alternatives, including E.coli, a bacterium that is uniquely suited to genetic manipulation. While E.coli don’t produce butanol naturally, the DNA of the bacteria can be modified to rapidly produce it.

Reengineering microbes at the genetic level involves more complex science and, in turn, more robust laboratory informatics. Developing new strains of genetically modified microbes and assiduously monitoring the production environment – from temperatures to potential sources of contamination – becomes critical. The analytical rigor, data management requirements and, ultimately, regulatory compliance demands are just some of the reasons that next-generation biofuels production also requires a next-generation lab.

LIMS: It’s Time for a Next-generation Biofuels Lab

While both first-generation and second-generation production processes have certainly benefitted from disciplined laboratory workflows and procedures – from the monitoring of fermentation and anaerobic digestion to blending and storage, the level of sophistication required for production of next-generation biofuels is much greater. As the industry has embraced synthetic biology, which combines molecular biology and systems biology with engineering principles to design biological systems, the need for analytical instruments and laboratory management systems has increased exponentially.

The role of the lab in biofuels production is manifold, from the complex science required to engineer more effective microbes to technologies and processes required to ensure quality, safety and efficacy.  The typical lab in this industry relies on an array of analytical instruments, from gas chromatography (GC) to ion chromatography FTIR, UV-Vis, and inductively coupled plasma (ICP), which is used extensively to ensure quality control.

Although biobutanol has many advantages over its predecessors, it’s difficult to produce, largely due to the sensitivity of microorganisms to the toxic compounds which are generated during the biomass pretreatment. Fermentation can be compromised or stopped altogether – leading to costly waste, so extra vigilance is required in the lab. And this hyper-vigilance is nearly impossible in all but the most highly integrated, efficient and data-centric labs.

The Lab as a Center of Excellence

The highly integrated, efficient, data-centric lab exists, and today the engine for that lab is the laboratory information management system (LIMS). The GC or UV-Vis instruments mentioned above are important, but they are a means to an end. That end – highly efficient, optimized, safe and profitable biofuels production – is contingent on the lab’s ability to constantly monitor processes and make data actionable in near real-time. The complexity of producing next-generation biofuels demands this.

Although innovation continues to revolve around new microorganisms and pathways, the industry is now turning its attention toward scaling. How, for example, will the industry manage new microorganism strains that have the potential to mutate or spread? Can scientific workflows now emerging within labs be “supersized” to oversee efficient and cost-effective production of biofuels on the scale required?

The answer is a resounding yes. If laboratories can drive efficiency and profitability in mega operations such as Sakhalin Energy, the world’s largest integrated oil and gas project, they can certainly play a major role in the maturing biofuels industry. In fact, Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS, on which the main Sakhalin Energy lab and all satellite labs are standardized, has capabilities ideally suited for the rigors of biofuel production.

What makes a LIMS such as SampleManager so important is its broad impact across all facets of production. The benefits during R&D are obvious, but as production reaches scale, and new regulations are promulgated, the true benefits of a highly integrated laboratory system become more pronounced.

The fermentation process is finicky and complex. The feedstock can take weeks to break down, so discovering problems too late can be costly. Labs know they must monitor these processes with analytical instruments, but a laboratory informatics system can do so much more than capture data. Instruments require constant maintenance and recalibration, users require frequent re-training, and data must be reported on regular intervals to different constituents, including regulatory agencies.

Evolving Regulatory Landscape

The biofuels industry is still evolving, and rapidly. As novel approaches to biofuel production, such as using genetically modified E.coli, exit the lab and are commercialized, oversight will only increase. This speaks to another benefit of a LIMS: its track record within highly regulated markets, including energy. A history of handling compliance with ISO, EPA and other guidelines and regulations ensures that the system is capable of adapting as compliance in this industry becomes more onerous.

Consider a recently released ASTM International standard that covers butanol to be blended with gasoline at 1 to 12.5 volume percent for use as an automotive spark-ignition engine fuel. The ASTM D7862, Specification for Butanol for Blending with Gasoline for Use as Automotive Spark-Ignition Engine Fuel, establishes performance requirements and test methods for butanol content, water content, acidity, inorganic chloride, solvent-washed gum, sulfur content and total sulfate. A LIMS such as SampleManager can easily standardize “test methods” such as these so that undue burdens aren’t placed on biofuels producers.

The biofuel production process, both upstream and downstream, is far too complex to describe in a single article. Managing the inherent complexity must get far easier, however, if the evolving biofuels industry and its labs are to properly prepare for the rigors of scale-up. A LIMS can help labs do just that. Because a LIMS such as SampleManager borrows from large-scale production experience in the energy sector, as well as highly complex environments such as biotechnology, it is uniquely capable of managing complex analytical workflows, as well as helping navigate changing regulatory landscapes.

This biofuels industry will change dramatically in the coming months and years, but the time for labs to retool is now. Because the LIMS is flexible and extensible, investment today isn’t simply about the preparing for the short-run; it’s about the positioning for sustained leadership as this opportunity dramatically manifests in the near future.

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