Optimizing Biofuels Production

The popularity of biofuels has grown as petrochemical organizations seek to develop long-term production from sustainable resources. As a result, joint ventures and collaborations are becoming more commonplace in this area. Systems that support this new demand require: 1) optimization of the raw materials; 2) the biological system (which converts the raw material to the chosen product) and 3) the process of running the production at commercially viable scale, be it continuous or batch.

There are many moving parts and an intrinsic link between various aspects of producing a biofuel or biofeedstock (referred to here as a bio-x), both from a value chain perspective across the process and the way the constituents of each part of the value chain impact it. For example, the production of the bio-x material is influenced by climate change, weather, water quality, regulatory and government policy and feedstock type.

This article will focus on a small section of the ecosystem, including the relationships between the biomass feedstock (algae, wood, corn, wheat, sugar), the biological system for conversion (yeast, enzymes, bacteria) and how this in turn is linked to the production and purification process (fermentation, distillation, filtration) for creating the bio-x. The scaleup process will also be explored.

Feedstock production

In feedstock production, firms like Monsanto, Syntec Biofuel, Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science and BASF are working to develop optimized biofeed stocks. Precise optimization and strong collaboration with the other parts of the value chain are required to develop the necessary raw materials and feedstocks for a given bio-x production system.

While producing more of something, or optimizing the content of a certain trait, chemical or protein, is a reasonably tractable problem considering modern agricultural practices and optimized crop strains, the process is complex. The optimized element—a certain sugar precursor, for example—is only useful if the downstream parts of the value chain in biofuel production are also optimized to extract and convert that feedstock and purify the bio-x, aviation fuel, for instance, to the correct levels.

Biological systems

The next step is selecting a biological system to convert the feedstock to the raw or unrefined product. Some would argue that the choice of bacterial yeast system is easy, and on a small laboratory scale perhap it is. On an industrial scale, however, the system must be optimized so that production is economically viable. If the cost of the system is too high, then industrial-scale production is a nonstarter.

Other factors then come into play. It is easy to optimize the biological system (genetically) to enhance traits and properties. These can even be designed from the ground up to impact only certain parts of the feedstock. Furthermore, the traits and properties can also be optimized to work at huge fermentation scales (thousands of liters) that otherwise would not work due to microbial and cellular behaviors.

Purification process

Another important consideration is how to process the bio-x and consistently produce a pure material that can be used in mission-critical systems. This is not simple considering that these systems run continuously. When the product is not a single batch, process optimization and purification become considerably more complex. Factors that affect the purity can be very small and can be a derivative of something that occurs early in the process.

Critical properties of the bio-x must be monitored continuously, in real time, and if they begin to drift, alterations to the upstream process have to be made quickly. However, adjustments can only be made to those items that will affect the property that has just changed; a random change may have a detrimental effect on the product.


The above elements—feedstock production, biological systems and purification—require very specific science, engineering, understanding and knowledge. Yet they are bound to each other as changes in one area affect another, creating a complex, interlinked system. A value chain is emerging in the industry, as are collaborations between the experts in each of the areas.

For example, Dupont, Dow and Novozymes are producing biological systems, enzymes and yeasts optimized to work with specific raw materials in collaboration with feedstock producers such as Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer. Such ventures ensure that the pairing of the biological system used for production is matched and optimized to the feedstock.


Scaleup is the final part of this value chain. During this step, process chemical companies such as BP and Shell adapt these raw materials and biological systems for continuous production. Process engineers and analysts must be able to review existing results and evaluate what happens when feedstock is optimized in a certain way or how it is impacted by a tweak in the process, and assess this to optimize quality and quantity in biofuel production.

Here the process world meets the world of chemistry and biology. Both knowledge repositories and the ability to work collaboratively between companies are necessary to build a data and business value chain. Each part of the overall process requires good holistic approaches to how data is managed and leveraged. Modern technology can help bring these components together so that organizations can share information to optimize bio-x production.

There is an obvious opportunity for technology and data management to help in this regard. Collaboration, efficiency and data quality can be addressed by software and streamlined data management procedures. If the joint ventures or programs are to operate effectively, the partners cannot work in isolation: They have to be connected in a way that allows each area to excel in its given scientific domain, e.g., molecular biology, purification, process scaleup, cell biology and process simulation.

Scientifically aware data must be shared—real data that can be automatically used in statistical and data analysis with all of the associated context, and that can be managed and optimized in order for the business value chain to really work. The biofuels market is not unlike other areas in which science, process and production collide, where data quality, collaboration and efficiency are important.

The technology

Within individual organizations and across joint ventures, a hosted web-based deployment delivers significant benefits. While security and intellectual property are priorities, and identifying and inviting others to share in a modern system are now well-established practices, the main concern is intellectual property. Contract terms must be agreed upon before starting. To this end, the collaborating organizations have to agree on how the IP will be distributed once the collaboration ends; it will either be shared between the collaborators or assigned to one of the parties.

Bio-x joint ventures

The value chain for bio-x production only works if many different scientific and engineering disciplines provide their expertise to the collective process.

Biofuels are part of the future of energy. Supporting data, science and engineering collaborations will increase the opportunity for success and commercial viability.

Additional reading

Hu, P.S. Biofuel Supply Chain Infrastructure: Optimizing the Evolution of Cellulosic Biofuel. Center for Transportation Analysis Research Brief, Oak Ridge National Laboratory; http://web.ornl.gov/sci/ees/etsd/cta/Biofuel_Supply_Chain_Infrastructure.pdf

Paul Denny-Gouldson is vice president, Strategic Solutions, IDBS, 2 Occam Ct., Surrey Research Park, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7QB, U.K.; tel: +44 1483 595 000; fax: +44 1483 595 001; [email protected];  www.idbs.com