Biométhodes, Virginia Tech sign agreement

By Erin Voegele | July 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted July 11, 2008 at 10:33 a.m. CST

French biotechnology company Biométhodes has signed an exclusive worldwide option-to-license agreement with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. for multiple technologies designed to convert biomass into bioethanol and biohydrogen.

The processes were invented by Percival Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. One process developed by Zhang releases sugars that can be fermented into ethanol from non-food lignocellulosic biomass. The process uses enzymes and mild recyclable physicochemical conditions that don't require high pressure or high temperatures. The pretreatment process, which doesn't degrade sugar, separates other profitable products, such as lignin and acetic acid.

According to Zhang, if sufficient funding can be raised, a pilot plant will be built in Virginia, which will eventually be scaled up to a full size biorefinery. If funding goals are not met, the plant will likely be built in Europe.

The pilot facility is intended to advance the process of converting biomass into ethanol and coproducts, focusing on biomass pretreatment. "The pilot plant will integrate two major technologies - Virginia Tech's pretreatment process, which breaks down the biomass, and Biométhodes' hydrolysis enzyme optimization technology to improve the cellulose degradation into fermentable sugars," said Gilles Amsallem, Biométhodes chief executive officer.

The project's goals are to increase hydrolysis efficiency, optimize production of enzymes, reduce enzyme cost, and conduct industrial scale testing with a commercial process deployment. "Our strategy is to enable next generation of biocatalysts and biofuels by co-developing pre-industrial processes, to be further integrated by industrial partners," Amsallem said.

According to Amsallem, locating the plant in Virginia will enhance collaboration efforts with Zhang as the process is optimized. Zhang will provide technical solutions and scientific advice for the project. He will also work as a scientific board member at Biométhodes. He said it's important that the facility be located in the United States because a market for ethanol already exists here. "We have a process with the potential to economically produce ethanol from biomass on the scale of billions of gallons per year scale," said John Talerico, Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties licensing associate.

The process of transforming biomass into hydrogen will be developed in France and validated though the development of a biohydrogen fuel cell prototype and small-scale model car. "All the conditions for the success of the hydrogen project exist in Europe and Biométhodes technologies are the most appropriate to develop this process," Amsallem said.

Using synthetic biology approaches, Zhang and researchers from Oak Ridge National Lab and the University of Georgia proved that a combination of 13 enzymes never found together in nature will completely convert polysaccharides into hydrogen when and where that energy is needed. Polysaccharides, such as starch and cellulose, are used by plants for energy storage and building blocks. They are stable until exposed to enzymes, which degrade them into carbon dioxide and hydrogen through a very efficient artificial metabolic chain.

"For the hydrogen process, it is still on the research stage, but it will be the ultimate solution to low-cost hydrogen production from renewable sugars," Zhang said. Biométhodes will use the approach developed by Zhang on a larger scale to develop fuel cells, a model car, a battery prototype and a car prototype. The company's goal is to enter co-development agreements with hydrogen fuel cell companies, aiming to ultimately incorporate the technology into the design of commercial fuel cells.

"Our technologies and Biométhodes' expertise in enzyme optimization should create best conditions for success of commercial development of biohydrogen and second generation biofuels in Europe and the [United States]," Talerico said.