Agrivida, Developer of Cheap Biofuel Tech, Seeks Deals to Broaden Commercial Horizons

Xconomy Boston — 

Agrivida scientists plan to be at an event this week supported by the U.S. Department of Energy in the Washington, DC, area, where the startup will show industry leaders its way of providing cheap sugar for making cellulosic biofuels and chemicals.

The Medford, MA-based firm has been on somewhat of a roll as of late. In December, the company announced a collaboration with the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta. Agrivida also gained attention in July when it showed that its engineered crops could greatly boost the efficiency of the process of extracting sugars from the crops for biofuel production.

Michael Raab, the firm’s president and an inventor of its technology, says that a big focus for his firm nowadays is to find partners among cellulosic biofuels processors that can help his small company commercialize its technology. Raab’s firm is offering the producers a potential way to significantly reduce the costs of an expensive step in making cellulosic ethanol—the sugar production process. This is the step where the cellulosic biomass gets exposed to pricey chemicals and enzymes and high temperatures to extract sugars from the feedstock that can be fermented into ethanol or other fuels and chemicals.

Commercial cellulosic ethanol doesn’t really exist yet, but companies such as Mascoma of Lebanon, NH, and Qteros in Marlborough, MA, have recently revealed deals to help them advance their processes for making such fuel in larger batches.

While part of the promise of cellulosic processing is the ability to make a variety of products from sources such as grass and plant waste, it’s tough to get the sugar out of these sources compared with traditional feedstocks like corn kernels and sugarcane. Raab says that the enzymes used in the process for plant feedstocks such as grass or corn stalks can add 50 cents per gallon to the cost of ethanol. That is where Agrivida’s technology comes in.

The company develops crops with cell walls that contain inactive versions of the enzymes that are normally added during the process. The company has engineered the enzymes so that they are only activated at certain temperatures and acidity levels during processing. Without this switch capability, Raab explains, the enzymes would cause the crops to wilt before they are harvested.

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5 responses to “Agrivida, Developer of Cheap Biofuel Tech, Seeks Deals to Broaden Commercial Horizons”

  1. BJohnson says:

    It will never work. Once the enzymes are activated then sugar monomers and oligomers are formed. Unless the biomass is sterilized or treated with a bacterialcidal agent, contaminants will literally eat their lunch. That’s just one of the MANY hurdles and holes in this technology.

  2. RMR says:

    Regarding the comment by BJohnson, there is a misunderstanding of the processing conditions. The engineered plants do go through pretreatment and hydrolysis unit operations, albeit under more mild and cost effective conditions, which effectively sterilizes the hydrolysate for fermentation. This process activates the enzymes, while sterilizing the hydrolysate. This has been conclusively demonstrated through the stability of the soluble sugars in the hydrolysate, and also in fermentation runs using both wild-type and engineered biomass. Agrivida recently showed data at the ARPA-E meeting that demonstrated in fermentation, the ethanol yields from several engineered biomass lines were twice as high as for wild-type biomass using the same process, and represented an approximately 80% conversion of overall cellulose.

    Additionally, there are also several relevant low temperature processing precedents in the commercial food and fermentation industry. Of these, the most notable is the raw starch process for making corn ethanol, which despite having a more concentrated sugar stream than used in cellulosic processing, uses lower temperatures and shorter times than in the Agrivida process.