50% yield boost for ethanol? No CO2? What?! White Dog Labs comes out of stealth

June 13, 2016 |

In what might become the most transformative development in fermentation yields since Noah debuted winemaking technology in the Book of Genesis, US-based White Dog Labs have unveiled a new process that eliminates the emission of CO2, a potent greenhouse gas, during fermentation and instead shifts the carbon to added ethanol production, boosting fermentation yields by around 50 percent. The by-products are distillers grains, corn oil (if extracted from the grains) and water.

According to White Dog’s management, the process can boost yields “50-100% for virtually any biochemical” in some cases with a White Dog enhanced production organism — at the high end of yield improvement, via the organism and an addition of hydrogen to the process.

Some yield jumps are even more exotic than those achieved with ethanol. For example, the process can boost acetone production by 60%, and cut CO2 by-production in half. With added hydrogen, the process can realize 120% increases in acetone production compared to conventional methods, with zero CO2 by-production.


Who are White Dog Labs?

White Dog is a US based company that has optimized clostridia — the production organism responsible for the ABE process (acetone, butanol, ethanol), and which operated at low yields and slow rates, but successfully, as far back as the First World War when the Allies were short on sources of acetone for munitions.


The White Dog backstory

The company is a bio chemicals technology company funded by a father son team determined to do their part to reduce the dependence on oil. Sass Somekh is a former semiconductor executive with Applied Materials and a former president of Novellus.Talli Somekh a software and biofuels entrepreneur (MuseaVentures.com, known in this sector for its investments in Kaiima and Better Place).  WDL, co-founded by Talli Somekh and CEO Bryan Tracy with Ari Eyal as CSO. It has a biology lab and a process scale up facility in Delaware, USA (see picture). Tracy founded Elcriton, which has been onstage a few times at the BIO World Congress, then focused on butanol.

The company first emerged a few years back with a proprietary process to extract small amount of chemicals from fermentation broth that substantially reduces capital and energy cost compared to distillation. It has reached agreement with ADM and designed a $100M, 25 million gallon per year n-butanol plant. ADM due diligence at the time found WDL technology “novel and well designed.” WDL applied for an 80% DOE loan, passed part 1 and was invited to submit part 2 — but suspended the project due to low oil prices.

The How of MixoFerm

The company went back to the lab to figure out a solution that could withstand the types of price pressures seen in 2009 global recession, 2012 drought and the 2015 oil-price-crash. Through its acquisition of Elcriton, a biotech spin out from the University of Delaware, WDL researchers reported in the scientific literature that they have developed an organism that, contrary to common belief, is capable of consuming sugar and CO2 concurrently.

Comparing the results to yeast, which consumes sugar and converts half of it to ethanol and emits the other half as CO2, this organism is capable of consuming the CO2 it initially produces.


The company has a biochemicals pathway based on the production of acetone and isopropyl alcohol (IPA), with a first commercial plant (75 kilotons per year) on the docket for 2020. In this slide, they describe, acetone and IPA as “decent markets” – acetone at 500 million gallons per year in the US and IPA at 150 million tons in the US — used in plastics, solvents and personal care.


For that application, our understanding is that they have completed a Preliminary equipment design, preliminary layout, preliminary schedule, and preliminary estimate — the elements of what is known as a phase 2 front end engineering design, assembled a “strong set of partners” (as yet undisclosed) in project development, process engineering, and EPC, organized an offtake for the acetone from a “major chemical company” for “most of the plant’s production” — and applied for a DOE loan guarantee for what is projected as a $147M project. The project has advanced to part 2 of the DOE process.

Mixotrophic fermentation compared to gas or liquid fermentation

WDL contends that mixotrophy is more efficient than gas fermentation, as it does not form acetic acid “just to facilitate” organism growth.

CO2-free Ethanol

Clearly, the biggest opportunity resides in the ethanol space — where the technology, as this slide demonstrates, can boost yields for a 100 million gallon ethanol plant to 150 million gallons, while reducing CO2 emissions to zero.

That could potentially qualify a corn ethanol plant as an advanced biofuels plant — for any fraction of the production where the feedstock was shifted away from corn. For example, to sorghum. And open up a whale of a lot of RINs and new market opportunities outside of the 15 billion cap on corn ethanol. Not to mention the attractions of up to a 50 percent boost in production


And, dare we mention the elimination of CO2 production as a striking example of carbon improvement that could address concerns about first-generation facilities that relate to CO2 reduction levels. And it might play havoc with the advocates of indirect land use change who have insisted that the only way you can boost corn ethanol production is through massive land-use change and the risk of deforestation.

Apparently not, perhaps.

Does it work with other sugars — for example, cellulosic? Sure can. C5s as well as C6 sugars.

How? OK, the basic idea on the ethanol side is this.

Conventional ethanol makes two moles of ethanol and two of CO2 from a mole of sugar. For chemistry buffs, it looks like this:

C6H12O6 —> 2 (C2H5OH) + 2 (CO2)

A process that eliminates the CO2 could look like this:

C6H12O6 + 6H2 —> 3 (C2H5OH) + 3 (H2O)

Where do you get the hydrogen?

OK, so here are the tough parts of the math. Prices for hydrogen are all over the map, depending on the scale of production and how you make it. We’ve seen prices at $1/kg and prices at $10/kg, quoted by various sources. As you see here, the process needs about 0.9 kilos per bushel of corn in added hydrogen.

If you’ve done your pencil work and thought, “hey, I’m paying as much as $9.00 for 1.4 more gallons of ethanol,” that’s not sustainable. In the $1 per kilo range, it’s a no-brainer — but there could be greenhouse gas consequences if the source of the hydrogen is steam reformation of methane and the leftover carbon monoxide is converted to CO2 and emitted.

So, there are some trade-offs to investigate.

One of them is producing hydrogen from lignin, and more about that here.

What scale?

It’s early days for the technology. They’re a 3 liter scale on the bench. Pilot scale is next — a few scale-up steps there before ready for prime-time.

If so, then what?

Let’s set aside the scale-up and hydrogen issues and imagine a world in which those challenges had been addressed. How does this advance potentially disrupt the storyline of renewables?

1. The importance of lignin, if this is the source of hydrogen.

2. The value of cellulose, if these are the sugars and the yields are 50% higher than conventional processes. Think about Michele Rubino’s note here that cellulosic ethanol is worth $3.47 per gallon today in California when all the credits are stacked up — so, this process could generate up to $1.73 per gallon more if the hydrogen is added.

3. The value equation for sorghum, since that’s a perfectly good way to use this process to qualify for  advanced biofuels RINs and capture a higher value RIn and open up a new channel to market in the RFS.

4. The consequences for anything headed into California, where the benefits of adding yield and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are more valuable than anywhere else.

5. The value opportunity for conventional ethanol producers who can replace or supplement current production organisms and access the higher yields and reduce the carbon footprint.

6. The potential value boost for growers — from to sorghum to cellulose or even grain sugars.

7. The pressure of E15 acceptance if more ethanol comes on to the market, for example via the advanced or cellulosic pools.

More on the technology.

We have an 8-Slide guide to White Dog Labs, here.

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