Taking Fermentation to a New Level

Two companies develop new technologies aimed at revolutionizing fermentation
By Holly Jessen | February 22, 2012

Understood since man first made beer, fermentation is an age-old process that has been developed to the point where it’s nearly impossible to improve on the efficiency of the process. “It’s maxed out,” says Garth Likes, CEO and chairman of Syngar Technologies Inc. That’s why many biofuels companies are focusing elsewhere—such as feedstock development, more easily digested cellulose, pretreatment processes or gasification, to name a few.  Syngar, however, is tackling the basic building block of fermentation itself. “Everybody else is off trying to solve the problem from different angles,” he says, “we have just been able to bring a very simple engineering technology process to the fermentation procedure and improve it.”

A technology in the precommercial phase by the Edmonton, Alberta, company has the potential to increase biofuel fermentation yields by 33 to 60 percent. The Pulsed Low Ultra Sound Wave, a patent pending technology trademarked as PLUSWave, utilizes ultrasound waves. Applied at specific frequencies and power levels at timed intervals, it stimulates organism growth through cell division and protein synthesis. “It’s sort of like, one plus one equals three,” Likes says. “We are increasing the growth curve of the organism so that it eats faster, it chews faster, it converts faster.”

Although it’s not yet known exactly how it works, he likens it to the body’s response to a cut. Signals immediately go out stimulating blood clotting and growth to heal the skin. “I think that what’s happening with the ultrasound is that we’re simulating growth responses within the organism because of this irritation, I’ll call it, from the sound wave frequencies,” he says. “And so in the process of growing and responding to enhanced growth, we’re also creating extra proteins or enzymes within the organism as part of the growth cycle.” He adds that research has shown the increase in yield is stimulated by the ultrasound waves, and is not only due to mixing.

Although the technology may have other applications, such as in the medical field, Syngar is first focusing its energy on the ethanol and biodiesel industries. The company is working toward licensing the technology for an upfront fee of $100,000 for manufacture and installation, plus a royalty based on the increase in gallons produced. Currently, it has teamed up with two other companies, one U.S. and one Canadian, on small-scale ventures and is looking for other partners to help bring it to commercial scale. For traditional grain-based ethanol plants, PLUSWave would mean a retrofit to existing equipment. It also works in the conversion of cellulosic materials to ethanol. “It’s not just a one specific technology to a one specific type of organism, it’s a very broadband, wide platform approach,” he says.

During cellulose degradation by the fungus Trichoderma reesei, PLUSWave increases the production of fermentable sugars by 40 percent. In the next step, it increases the ability of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to ferment sugars to ethanol by 20 percent. In all, the company estimates it could reduce cellulose conversion costs to 1.2 cents per liter. Once the company has a handle on that, there are plans to research a consolidated cellulosic production process that would combine the hydrolysis and fermentation into one step, which would further decrease costs. “It not only increases its growth rate and its budding rate, but it produces more cellulase enzymes, which will directly act on the cellulose to convert into sugars,” he says. “We are quite optimistic with our data showing us that we would have a viable process of being able to put cellulose materials into a bioreactor, convert it to an end product sugar and then add the yeast to do the fermentation so that in a one-step consolidated process you could have cellulose to ethanol.”

To commercialize PLUSWave, Syngar needs to solve the technical problem of how to achieve uniform dispersion of ultrasound waves through a large fermentation vessel. It works in the lab with small volumes, Likes says, comparing it to achieving water jiggle in a glass on a desk to jiggling the water an office-sized tank. “How do we disperse the sound waves through whatever volumes we are working with in order to get the maximum dispersal of sound waves through that entire volume so that all the organisms, etcetera, can be affected by the PLUSWave?” he asks. “We know that once they are exposed to the PLUSWave, the effect is always the same, which is the stimulation of growth and the stimulation of enzyme production. Once we have that worked out from an engineering perspective, we will be ready for our commercial launch.”

Of course, the timeline also depends on money.  Syngar is working towards going public, Likes said, estimating it could receive upwards of $10 million in financing, if successful. “That will allow us to move things forward,” he says. “Based on what I see right now, I’d say probably in 12 months we would be ready to be commercially offering licenses with all of the proof and all of the data and all of the expertise so it becomes a turn-key operation.”

Firm Optimization
Even as novel technologies such as the PlusWave are being developed, other companies continue to build on existing antibacterial and yeast products. Ferm Solutions Inc. has an arsenal of such products, and is in the research and development phase on multiple others. “We’re very focused on reducing costs and at the same time increasing performance through optimization and improved products and processes,” says Shane Baker, president and CEO. “We hope to bring several of those to commercialization by this year.”

The company plans to break ground in February on a $1 million expansion to its Danville, Ky., facility, which it hopes will be completed by midyear. The goal is to add more space for laboratory research and for its advanced training programs for ethanol personnel, Baker says. In exchange for $100,000 in forgivable loans and grants from state and local government, Ferm Solutions has committed to adding five new high-tech jobs to the current 20. “In addition to in-house laboratory and research support services, we also have an extensive collaborative network with different academic and industrial institutions,” says Patrick Heist, chief scientific officer.

The company has a history of working with the grain-based ethanol industry with its FermGuard and FermPro products. In the advanced biofuels arena, Ferm Solutions has helped clients develop new methods for producing ethanol from everything from sweet sorghum, potatoes, waste streams from candy manufacturing and expired beverages, to name a few. Although its core competency remains serving the ethanol industry, research has identified fermentation applications for the food industry and bacterial control methods for the medical field. “It is possible that this could not only expand into second-generation biofuel production, but also into other industries as well,” Heist says, adding that diversification has the potential to make the company stronger.

New nonantibiotic bacterial control products are in the later stages of research and development at Ferm Solutions. Using natural products, such as extracts from plants, fungi, insects and other living organisms, the team is mining for chemicals that could be used to control bacterial contamination at ethanol plants, Heist says. These chemicals would be less likely to pose regulatory issues for the ethanol industry because they aren’t used for treatment of human disease.

The company’s own antibacterial product, FermGuard, is a well-known, safe product for solving bacterial problems at ethanol plants, Heist says. Based on their own studies of the issue, Heist believes any residual antibiotics in distillers grains are at safe levels and may not even be biologically active. However, it’s still a good area for continued study. “We are looking to the future, in case there was some type of a problem with antibiotics, which I don’t foresee, then we have alternatives,” he says.

Research is also being conducted on the possibility of controlling bacterial contamination on the molecular level. “We’re actually looking at how bacteria communicate with each other and so using various self-signaling pathways, we can create signals that may tell a bacteria, ‘Hey, this is not a good place to live and reproduce,’” he tells EPM.

Thanks to assistance through academic and industrial collaborations, Ferm Solutions is also conducting basic scientific research to better understand the dynamics of bacterial contamination in the ethanol production process. That’s the foundation for understanding how to fix the problem. “Before you come up with a control strategy, you really have to understand what you are trying to control,” he says. “In the case of bacteria that affect ethanol plants, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a highly understudied area.”

Work is also under way to create new yeast strains from a repository of more than 200 strains collected from mostly natural habitats. The team is evaluating the strains for beneficial characteristics, such as improved stress and temperature tolerance, sensitivity to organic acids, ability to utilize multiple sugar sources and the addition of nutritional value to distillers grains. Once that process is complete, Ferm Solutions will work to mix and match the positive attributes among yeast strains through genetic modification or traditional breeding strategies. Other technologies, such as corn oil extraction methods and enzymes, are also under investigation.

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
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