Advanced Bioeconomy Horizons: The 5 Top R&D Trends Right Now

November 8, 2017 |

Catalytic reaction rates, microcrystalline cellulose, cyanobacteria working in teams, vertical farming, vegan products & markets. The 5 top disruptive techs we’ve seen in recent weeks are attacking these fronts.

Here’s what we see.

1. Breakthrough on (microcrystalline) cellulose costs

A new source of cheap microcrystalline cellulose has been generating a lot of positive noise in that part of the R&D world that traffics in new samples coming out of labs.

Sweetwater has developed a novel pathway to a high value refined cellulose product by leveraging its Sunburst pretreatment system — developed primarily for use in the cellulosic fuels space.

If MCC is generally available at around $1450 a ton, Sweetwater’s cost is expected at scale to be at the $250 per ton mark, or less — using hardwoods as a source of the sugar.

MCC as it’s known will be a billion dollar market by 2020, according to a new report from Markets and Markets, which notes:

MCC is extensively used in food products such as baked foods, dairy products, desserts, frozen foods, and others as bulking agent and fat substitute, helping in enhancing mouthfeel, body, and consistency of the food product. MCC has applications in the pharmaceutical industry as it exhibits chemical inertness and lack of taste and odor.

As an excipient, MCC is used widely in almost every kind of oral dosage like pellets, tablets, capsules, sachets, and others. Development of multifunctional excipients and co-processed excipients is also expected to play a vital role in market growth during the forecast period. This increase in demand can be attributed to the need to address the solubility issues of recently developed Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). In the cosmetics & personal care segment, it is used as a texturizer and thickening agent. MCC is also used in instrumentations and industrial applications.

Left side is the solubilized lignin filtrate before pH adjusted – centrifuged with no solids at the bottom of the vial (top of the photo). Middle is the pH adjusted solubilized lignin filtrate – shows we re-precipitate loads of lignin! Right side of photo is the wash filtrate after pH adjust – no real additional lignin precipitating out, only residual cellulose.  Means we did a great job solubilizing and recovering in the first step.

Expanding the set of suppliers?

According to Markets & Markets, the global MCC market is dominated by various market players such as FMC Corporation (U.S.), DuPont (U.S.), DFE Pharma (Germany), Asahi Kasei Corporation (Japan), and Tembec Inc. (Canada), among others.”

The breakthrough

Above: pH adjusted cellulose after the washing step – turns even whiter when pH is neutralized… Again, suggests we do a great job of solubilizing in that first pH raise.

The current industry standard for cellulose production is based on pulp and paper technology, where the main revenue stream is limited to the cellulose fraction only.  The C5 sugars and the lignin are degraded to the point where they are typically burned for their low thermal value, but, you know this stuff.  Sweetwater’s process utilizes all of the feedstock to yield a complete value suite, consisting of:

· a microcrystalline cellulose that can instantly address many large and existing markets with the future potential to use a low energy enzymatic pathway to very high value nanocellulose,

·  a high quality C5 rich sugar stream that can be converted into ethanol or other high value biochemicals,

· a unique non-sulfonated lignin that can be used as a functional filler for many petroleum-based products or converted into a very high value fractionated lignin via MetGen process.

Due to the nature of the Sunburst pretreatment system, the word is that Sweetwater can maintain the value of all components of the biomass while recovering the cellulose in a more energy efficient fashion.  Existing technologies use very large pressure vessels to ‘cook’ the biomass at high pressures and temperatures in order to remove the hemicellulose and lignin.

Due to the high degree of hemicellulose extraction in the Sunburst system and the small and uniform particle size of the remaining cellulose and lignin, all that has to be done in the Sweetwater cellulose recovery process is a quick and simple pH elevation at atmospheric pressures to solubilize the lignin (60 minutes).

Overall, this is an extremely easy process compared to current technologies.

And, we might add, this saves all the hemicellulose and lignin for other uses in the bioeconomy chain. Very interesting development in the higher-value product segment.

2. Renewable Jet Fuel 2.0 – new catalysts transform reaction rates, hydrocarbon yields

Renewable jet’s been around for a while now — the issue has been low volumes of fuel and affordability for the airlines. In part, they go hand in hand, and feedstock costs and capex are at the heart of that — one of the reasons why relatively affordable technologies such as hydrotreating animal fat residues has been the major source of production — yet limited by animal processing volumes. And one reasons that Fulcrum BioEnergy is getting traction converting waste to jet fuel.

Well, chemical goats, anyway.

As Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation Associate Director Basudeb Saha explained to the University of Delaware’s UDaily: “One of the biggest hurdles to making renewable jet fuel, according to , is increasing the speed and efficiency of two critical chemical processes — coupling and deoxygenation.

Since the plant material the center works with has a low carbon content once it’s broken down from a solid into a liquid, the carbon molecules must be chemically stitched together or “coupled” to create high-carbon molecules in the jet fuel range. Then the oxygen must be removed from these molecules to form branched hydrocarbons. This branching is essential to improving the flow of fuel at the freezing temperatures of commercial flight.”

Now, Saha’s team has developed a new generation of catalysts they call “chemical goats” made from inexpensive materials such as graphene. One, operates at low temperatures (around 60°C) with high selectivity, and speeds the reaction rates. Another removes oxygen and produces up top 99 percent branched hydrocarbon yields. Both catalysts can be revered and the process can be scaled, according to the research team.

You can check out the underlying research in two articles in ACS Catalysis and one in ChemSusChem. They are here.

Solventless C–C Coupling of Low Carbon Furanics to High Carbon Fuel Precursors Using an Improved Graphene Oxide Carbocatalyst

“Hydrodeoxygenation of Furylmethane Oxygenates to Jet and Diesel Range Fuels: Probing the Reaction Network with Supported Palladium Catalyst and Hafnium Triflate Promoter”

“Catalytic Hydrodeoxygenation of High Carbon Furylmethanes to Renewable Jet-Fuel Ranged Alkanes Over a Rhenium-Modified Iridium Catalyst”

More on the story here.

3. Pairing cyanobacteria to produce bioplastics from sunlight, water and CO2, or, I’m not chubby Ma, I’m making bioplastics.

We’ve been reporting on research associated with bacteria that can produce the important bioplastic PHB for some time.

As we reported in The Three Microbeteers:

A Berkeley Lab team led by Steven Singer and funded by ARPA-E has developed a method to blend hydrogen-producing electrocatalytic materials with genetically modified Ralstonia eutropha, a common soil bacterium, to produce hydrocarbons in a reactor — requiring only CO2 and electricity. This Microbial-Electrocatalytic system is a living inorganic-organic hybrid that can be tailored for the production of a broad range of useful hydrocarbon products, including biodiesel, jet fuel, and specialty chemicals.

R. eutropha is a model organism that can naturally produce hydrocarbons by metabolizing hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). It has a natural metabolic pathway that already supports significant carbon flux, producing polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) in granules. The Berkeley Lab team is using synthetic biology tools to optimize the bacterium for production of hydrocarbons such as methyl ketones, isoprenoids, and alkanes. In addition, the genetics of R. eutropha can be programmed to integrate onto the cellular surface inorganic electrocatalysts, which will generate hydrogen in the presence of an electric current.

So, we have a significant update, and it comes via our old friend Thermosynechococcus elongatus. And you thought Engelbert Humperdinck was a tough name to pronounce.

As we reported in  “Doing it in the Dark: Fuel from thin air, and beyond light” that a research team from Shota Atsumi’s lab at the University of California, Davis have reported that they engineered Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942, a strain of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, to grow without the need for light.


There’s another strain in town as well, UTEX 2973. Whereas most cyano strains grow by 5 to 8 percent per hour, under favorable conditions, this strain grows at more than 50 percent per hour, the highest growth rate reported to date for any cyanobacterial strain, and almost twice as fast as PCC 7942.

But new research suggests that pairing two cyanobacteria creates even more compelling results.

It works this way. An engineered form of Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942, equipped with the sucrose transporter CscB, makes sugar from water, sunlight and CO2.  Then, Halomonas boliviensis converts the sugar to PHB, which its uses as an energy storage system.  Voila, bioplastics.

It’s not entirely different to systems that use algae to produce targeted oils, as Corbio just acquired out of the old Solazyme technology empire. Only, in this case, the system produces sugars directly from CO2, sunlight and water — just as sugarcane does. No need to bother with producing sugarcane, then processing it.  Cutting out the MiddleCane, as it were.

Here are the highlights:

  • You get CO2 from PHB via this specialized autotroph/heterotroph pair.
  • They are stable and continuously productive over 5 months of co-culture.
  • They resist invasion by a contaminant without antibiotics or selective agents.
  • PHB production from synthetic consortia rivals that of axenic cyanobacterial culture.

4. What do top chef David Chang, General David Petraeus and IKEA have in common?

They all find themselves among the investors in  a  $40 million Series D financing raised by AeroFarms. Also participating are Dubai-based Meraas Holdings, London-based ADM Capital, NYC-based AB (AllianceBernstein), London-based Wheatsheaf Group and Beijing-based GSR Ventures.

Founded in 2004 and having built 9 farms to date, AeroFarms is on a mission to fundamentally change the way the world thinks about agriculture by building, owning, and operating indoor vertical farms around the world that grow flavorful, safe, healthy food in a sustainable and socially responsible way. AeroFarms patented indoor vertical farming systems make year-round harvests with peak flavor possible while disrupting the traditional distribution channels that lead to massive carbon emissions and food waste. AeroFarms is able to bring the farm to the consumer while mitigating the food safety and environmental risks of commercial field farming.

Having raised in total over $100 million in corporate and project financing, AeroFarms will used the latest round of funds for continued investment in leading R&D and technology and additional farm expansion around the world.

“We have built a world-class organization that has expertise in all aspects of horticulture, biology, engineering, automation, machine vision, building systems, food safety, and nutrition to manage the growing process from seed to package for a truly differentiated product. We are as much a capabilities organization as we are farmers, vertically integrated to give us the tools and insights to optimize for taste, texture, color, nutrition, and yield, ” AeroFarms Co-Founder & CEO, David Rosenberg said.

He added: “We have built a world-class organization that has expertise in all aspects of horticulture, biology, engineering, automation, machine vision, building systems, food safety, and nutrition to manage the growing process from seed to package for a truly differentiated product. We are as much a capabilities organization as we are farmers, vertically integrated to give us the tools and insights to optimize for taste, texture, color, nutrition, and yield.”

IKEA and top chef David Chang round out financing for $40 million Series D round

5. Vegan continues to go big with plant-based beverage expansion

In Virginia, DanoneWave, the newly combined business unit of the U.S. dairy operation of global food company Danone and legacy WhiteWave Foods, will invest up to $60 million in its plant-based beverage manufacturing operation in Rockingham County. The company will add new production capacity and expand its warehouse at the Mt. Crawford facility. Virginia successfully competed against Pennsylvania for the project, which is expected to create up to 49 new jobs.

Danone’s portfolio of brands include: Activia, DanActive, Danimals, Dannon, Danonino, Danone, Earthbound Farm, Horizon Organic premium dairy products, International Delight coffee creamers and iced coffee, Light & Fit, Oikos Greek yogurt, Silk plant-based foods and beverages, So Delicious Dairy Free, Vega and Wallaby Organic.

The Silk and Horizon Organic brands were the primary targets for Danoe in its $10.4 billion acquisition of WhiteWave Foods last year. DanoneWave is now a business unit of Danone and operates from headquarter offices in White Plains, New York and Broomfield, Colorado. DanoneWave was formed following the acquisition of WhiteWave Foods by Danonewhitewave

DanoneWave will receive a $700,000 performance-based grant from the Virginia Investment Partnership (VIP) program, an incentive available to existing companies, to assist the County with the project. The company will also be eligible to receive sales and use tax exemptions on manufacturing equipment. Additional funding and services to support the company’s employee training activities will be provided through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program.


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