As U.S. energy imports dramatically drop—a clear sign of our growing energy independence—it would appear that renewables investment is in jeopardy, including the biofuels market. There’s some evidence to support this; but if declining or stalled investment is predicated on the limited potential of existing technology, much of which still relies on biomass, the biofuels industry may, in fact, be undergoing a natural transition instead of a decline.
This is echoed in a recent comment by Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London. According to Labastida, “Growth opportunities for first-generation biofuels are close to exhausted, while a series of next-generation technologies are not quite ready.” These next-generation technologies, which include synthetic biological alternatives, may hold the key for a more rapid progression of biofuels production.
If continuing investment in biofuels startups and by large energy producers worldwide is any indication, we’re due for more—not less—innovation. And, as this innovation transforms production, so too will it transform the in-house and contract laboratories that support the biofuels industry.
Although generally proven commercially, first-generation biofuels, primarily ethanol, are considered too costly to produce to be viable in the long term. More recently, cheaper feedstock have driven significant interest/investment in second-generation biofuels. But, despite much lower feedstock costs and greater efficiencies, the limitations of ethanol may be too much to overcome. The future, many believe, may turn to biobutanol, which has higher energy content, is more versatile and can, under the right circumstances, be produced more efficiently.
As scientists turn their attention toward biobutanol, the effort becomes one of reengineering microbes. The microbe of choice has long been bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, but its inherent limitations have many researchers and businesses looking toward alternatives, including E.coli, a bacterium that is uniquely suited to genetic manipulation. While E.coli doesn’t produce butanol naturally, the DNA of the bacteria can be modified to rapidly produce it.
Re-engineering microbes at the genetic level involves more complex science and, in turn, more robust laboratory informatics. Developing new strains of genetically modified microbes and carefully monitoring the production environment becomes critical. The analytical rigor, data management requirements and, ultimately, regulatory compliance demands are just some of the reasons that next-generation biofuels production also requires a next-generation laboratory.
LIMS in action
While both first- and second-generation production processes have benefitted from disciplined laboratory workflows and procedures—from the monitoring of fermentation and anaerobic digestion to blending and storage—the level of sophistication required for R&D of next-generation biofuels is much greater. As the industry has embraced synthetic biology, which combines molecular biology and systems biology with engineering principles to design biological systems, the need for analytical instruments and laboratory management systems has exponentially increased.
The role of the laboratory in biofuels R&D is manifold, from the complex science required to engineer more effective microbes to technologies and processes required to ensure quality, safety and efficacy. The typical laboratory in this industry relies on an array of analytical instruments, from gas chromatography (GC) to ion chromatography FTIR, UV-Vis and inductively coupled plasma (ICP), which is used extensively to ensure quality control.
Although biobutanol has many advantages over its predecessors, it’s difficult to produce, largely due to the sensitivity of microorganisms to the toxic compounds which are generated during the biomass pretreatment. Fermentation can be compromised or stopped altogether, leading to costly waste, so extra vigilance is required in the laboratory. And this hyper-vigilance is nearly impossible in all but the most highly integrated, efficient and data-centric laboratories.
The data-centric laboratory
The highly integrated, efficient, data-centric laboratory exists, and today the engine for that laboratory is the laboratory information management system (LIMS). The GC or UV-Vis instruments mentioned above are important, but they are a means to an end. That end—highly efficient, optimized, safe and profitable biofuels production—is contingent on the laboratory’s ability to constantly monitor processes and make data actionable in near real time. The complexity of producing next-generation biofuels demands this.
Although innovation continues to revolve around new microorganisms and pathways, the industry is now turning its attention toward scaling. How, for example, will the industry manage new microorganism strains that have the potential to mutate or spread? Can scientific workflows now emerging within labs be “supersized” to oversee efficient and cost-effective production of biofuels on the scale required?
The answer is a resounding yes. If laboratories can drive efficiency and profitability in mega operations such as Sakhalin Energy, the world’s largest integrated oil and gas project, they can certainly play a major role in the maturing biofuels industry. In fact, Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS, on which the main Sakhalin Energy laboratory and all satellite laboratories are standardized, has capabilities ideally suited for the rigors of biofuel production.
The changing regulatory landscape
The biofuels industry is rapidly evolving. As novel approaches to biofuel production, such as using genetically modified E.coli, exit the laboratory and are commercialized, oversight will only increase. This speaks to another benefit of a LIMS: its track record within highly regulated markets, including energy. A history of handling compliance with ISO, EPA and other guidelines and regulations ensures that the system is capable of adapting as compliance in this industry becomes more onerous. A LIMS such as SampleManager can easily standardize test methods as regulations change so that new requirements don’t place undue burdens on biofuels producers.
This biofuels industry will change significantly in the coming months and years, but the time for R&D laboratories to retool is now. Because the LIMS is flexible and extensible, investments made today don’t just offer short-term benefits, they position smart manufacturers for sustained leadership as this industry grows dramatically in the near future.