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OPXBIO Brings a High Tech Twist to Biofuel

RP Siegel | Monday July 19th, 2010 | 1 Comment

When I think of bio-fuels, I often envision guys in denim coveralls driving tractors through cornfields or dragging brush into piles. But clearly I’ve been looking backwards rather than focusing on what’s ahead.

Take, for example, Colorado-based OPXBIO. This group of PhD’s and MBA’s are clearly the smart guys in the room who, instead of driving tractors, are driving a massively parallel genetic, experimental and analysis process that they call EDGE, which stands for Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering. It is this proprietary process which gives them their competitive edge in what they call third generation bio-engineering. OPXBIO (along with ReVolt, subject of a post last week) recently received an ARPA-e grant, this one allocated by DOE for a process to combine CO2 and electricity to make a viable transportation fuel.

Mike Rosenberg, their VP of Business Development, explained their approach to me as follows:

“Let’s say you wanted to design the best bike and bike rider for a specific type of bike race. In traditional bio-engineering, you would select the rider, equip his bike, run a race and see what happens. If he loses, you change a few things, and then try again. It is a random, time consuming process. What OPXBIO does, through our Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering or EDGE™ technology, is to make millions of changes to either the bike or bike rider and enter all of them in a race. We then use our technology to evaluate the performance of each of these riders… Our approach is a directed approach, we know the changes we are making and we can evaluate how each performs, which then informs our further changes. This allows us to achieve the optimum bike/bike rider combination quicker and with less cost than traditional bio-engineering.”

The advantage of this approach is that new bio-processes and strains can be developed in months rather than years. This capability can be applied to any number of bio-products.

OPXBIO sees their market opportunity as “biological conversion of renewable raw materials to replace petroleum based fuels and chemicals.” The company first entered the bio-based chemicals market with bio-acrylics, seeing the $8 billion annual market with 4% growth per year, as a ripe target.  Bio-acrylic is used both in paints and as textile fibers. With OPXBIO’s strain of fermentation microbes and bioprocess, they will have a product on the market that is cost-advantaged by almost 10%. The company’s advantage lies in its use of corn feedstock rather than petroleum. The product also realizes an 85% life cycle reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared with petro-acrylic. They expect to have a pilot plant completed this year, a demonstration plant in two years and a full scale production facility two years after that.

The company will now be in a position to give more attention to biofuel due to the $6 million awarded them by DOE through their ARPA-e program. According to CEO Charles Eggert, they already have proof-of-concept for an organism that can convert renewably derived hydrogen and carbon dioxide, through a bio-fermentation process, into a sustainable bio-diesel fuel for cars and jets that should cost less than $2.50 per gallon.

Since biofuels are most commonly made from sugar cane, leftover fry grease, corn or switchgrass, the chemicals only approach is an unusual one.  So what makes it a bio-fuel, you might ask? It’s the organisms that do the fermentation, converting H2 and CO2 into fatty acid methyl ester, otherwise known as bio-diesel. Their effectiveness, and the overall process efficiency is what’s responsible for the low price. OPXBIO will be performing a life-cycle greenhouse gas analysis a part of their task plan for the ARPA-e project.

They plan to have a commercial bio-diesel production facility on-line by 2015.

I asked Mike Rosenberg, if the company had considered applying that same capability to the development of algae-based fuels. He said they could in theory, though it is a larger organism than what they typically work with and they would have a lot of catching up to do to get into the game, but then anything is possible.

There will be a lot of sorting out as we make our way into our new energy future. Let’s hope that whatever options are selected to become mainstream, are chosen for the right reasons, and that they are truly sustainable in every sense of the word.

RP Siegel is co-author of Vapor Trails, the first book in a series of sustainability novels on energy, food and water.

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