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Beyond Biofuels: Berkeley Lab Facility a Catalyst for Broader Bio-based Economy

Five years in, the Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit has established more than 30 diverse partnerships

Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit seen here with partners from Mango MaterialsSustainable domestic biomass resources can help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, generate US jobs, revitalize rural and urban communities, and mitigate the environmental impact of petroleum-based industries.

When the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit (ABPDU) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) was commissioned, the initial focus was on overcoming barriers to biofuel commercialization identified by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), the primary source of funding for the program.

The 15,000 square-foot facility, located in Emeryville, California, was designed to provide bench to pilot scale test beds for advanced cellulosic biofuel technologies developed by partners from other national labs, government agencies, industry, and academia. The ABPDU, which commenced operations in 2012, has capacity for chemical and biomass processing up to 200 liters and fermentation processing up to 300 liters, as well as technology for downstream product recovery, upgrading and purification.

However, in recent years, the scope of the ABPDU’s activities has expanded to encompass a wider range of bio-based material, chemical and protein products. To date, the ABPDU has entered into agreements with more than 30 partners to develop, scale, and validate processes for transforming a variety of nonfood plant-, algae-, and waste-derived materials into a plethora of products. Some of these include: specialty chemicals used in flavorings, fragrances and cosmetics; polymers used in packaging, coatings, and adhesives; enzymes and proteins used in food products; and fibers used in textiles.

“If we’re going to develop a biofuel-based energy economy we need to get all those other molecules we currently get from oil from something else,” explained ABPDU program head Todd Pray. “So this is a way to both develop more efficient manufacturing processes with bio-based inputs, to utilize waste feedstocks—things like garbage and agricultural residue—and to really grow the manufacturing base for the economy.”

What’s more, revenue generated from value added products that can be produced along the pathways from feedstocks to biofuels is a key piece of the economic equation to make next-gen biofuels cost competitive with fossil fuels. Ultimately, Pray believes that the ABPDU, in its role as a shared resource, collaboration hub, and bioprocess incubator, has the potential to catalyze a manufacturing base for the bioeconomy, not just in the biotech hubs around the San Francisco Bay Area or Boston, but in rural and depressed urban areas as well.

“At the ABPDU we have a lot of flexibility both upstream and downstream,” Pray said. “We’re able to utilize pretty much any kind of bio-based feedstock. And we’re not just doing fermentation; we can recover, purify and upgrade different types of products. So it’s not just a protein production facility, not just a biofuel production facility, we can make all of those different molecules downstream of fermentation.”

By leveraging the ABPDU’s capabilities, companies avoid the large cost and long timelines associated with building their own dedicated pilot facilities, allowing them to focus their efforts on product development, later-stage manufacturing facility deployment, and near-term job growth.

The ABPDU and several the companies it has partnered with have been beneficiaries of two “Tech-to-Market” initiatives sponsored by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO): the “Industrial Seedling” laboratory call for proposals pilot, which provided up to $20K per project (up to $40K in its second year) to the national labs to work with pre-seed, seed-stage or early round VC-backed startups; and the Small Business Vouchers (SBV) pilot, which provides small businesses in the clean energy sector with funds ranging from $50K to $300K toward the use of the national labs’ technical resources.

In the “Industrial Seedling” program’s first year, fiscal year 2015, seven companies’ proposals to work with ABPDU were funded; an additional five were funded in the program’s second year.

In round one of the SBV program, in fiscal year 2015, Lygos, a DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) spin-out founded in 2010, was awarded $300K to scale up its bio-malonic acid fermentation process at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and to validate process performance at the ABPDU.

“The process metrics we observed at lab scale were successfully transitioned to pilot scale at ABPDU,” said Lygos CEO Eric Steen. “It’s the first time malonic acid has been produced in meaningful quantities from renewable materials instead of petroleum.” In 2017 the company is planning to ship metric ton quantities of product.

Several companies that initially received the smaller project awards to work with ABPDU subsequently secured the larger voucher funding, noted Pray. In round two of the SBV program, HelioBioSys, Mango Materials, and Zymochem each received $200K to further develop projects.

And in the third round, in fiscal year 2017, new ABPDU partner Kalion received $200K to reach full manufacturing scale production of bio-based glucaric acid, one of the “Top Value Added Chemicals from Biomass” identified in a 2004 survey by staffers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit“We had gotten to the point where we felt that if our process scaled successfully we would be able to commercialize it. But as a very small, lean company we needed another point of validation with our investors,” said Kalion President Darcy Prather. “Our work up to that point had been in two-liter shake flask or smaller. The timing worked perfectly so we were able to go from a two-liter to a 300-liter run via fermentation at the ABPDU.”

The relationship with the ABPDU has also been a great resource in helping Kalion connect with potential partners for the next level of scale up and commercialization, Prather added.

Another new collaborator, Bolt Threads, founded in 2015, is working with the ABPDU to investigate the biophysical characteristics of their engineered silk proteins and to refine methods for separating and purifying them. The proteins are produced in liquid form through a fermentation process with modified yeast, then wet-spun into fibers, which can be knit or woven into textiles.

“We were attracted to ABPDU because of their expertise, specialized equipment, flexibility, and ease of access,” said Ritu Bansal-Mutalik, Bolt Threads’ Principal Scientist for Recovery and Separations. “Their willingness to tailor projects to our needs has made them ideal partners. The scientific conclusions resulting from the partnership have accelerated our in-house research program, improving our timelines and providing real impact toward meeting our business objectives.”

Bolt Threads has begun transferring its lab-scale process into commercial-scale operations for three customers, including outdoor apparel maker Patagonia.

“Fermentation has become one of those technologies that has become vital in the 21st century economy, but there are almost no resources in the world to help small companies doing fermentation to develop their business,” said Ron Shigeta, Chief Science Officer for Indie Bio, a San Francisco-based biotech accelerator. “ABPDU is fulfilling a vital role in making that real.”

A number of startups that have participated in Indie Bio’s intensive four-month bench-to-product program have also collaborated with ABPDU. Recently Indie Bio formalized an umbrella agreement to get companies in its residency program off and running with ABPDU more quickly. “Speed is important to us,” Shigeta said, “and ABPDU has been very helpful to get companies further along toward economic viability.”

Director of the CA Governor’s Office of Business Visits ABPDU

Panorea Avdis, Director of Governor Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), visited the Biosciences Area’s Emery Station Operations Center on September 6 to learn more about the biosciences and bioeconomy related initiatives. GO-Biz was created to serve as California’s single point of contact for economic development and job creation efforts and is an important one-stop shop for companies that want to take advantage of California incentives.

During the visit Director Avdis, who was accompanied by Deputy Director and CA Small Business Advocate, Jesse Torres, met with Mary Maxon, Biosciences Associate Lab Director, Blake Simmons, Division Director, Biological Systems and Engineering, Chief Science & Technology Officer and Vice President for Deconstruction, Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), and Todd Pray, Program Head, Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit (ABPDU). Avdis also toured the laboratories at JBEI and visited the ABPDU to learn more about how it can be a resource for young biosciences companies seeking to scale up operations.

AIChE Honors ABPDU Researchers

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) has recognized two Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU) early-career researchers with honors to be bestowed at the 2017 AIChE Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., this fall (Oct. 29 – Nov. 3).

Akash Narani, a senior process engineer at ABPDU, has been named to AIChE’s “35 Under 35” list recognizing outstanding young scientists for their contributions to the Institute and to the chemical engineering profession. Narani and his fellow awardees are profiled in the August issue of Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP) Magazine, AIChE’s flagship publication, and will be celebrated at a reception held during the AIChE Annual Meeting.

Ning Sun, a research scientist who leads the Catalysis and Analytical team at ABPDU, has been awarded AIChE’s prestigious Program Committee’s Young Investigator Award for Innovations in Green Process Engineering and will present an invited talk on “Unlocking Biomass Energy: Process Development and Scale-up of Biomass Conversion to Advanced Fuels and Chemicals” during a special session at the AIChE Annual Meeting.

New Partnership for ABPDU Through DOE’s Small Business Voucher Pilot

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today 38 new National Laboratory collaborations with small businesses through its Small Business Vouchers (SBV) pilot. Berkeley Lab will collaborate with four small businesses. One of them is Kalion Inc. based in Milton, Massachusetts, who will use the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Demonstration Unit’s capabilities. ABPDU and Kalion’s goal is to reach full manufacturing-scale production of glucaric acid and glucuronic acid by creating a manufacturing-ready production strain and then scaling up that strain to generate an appropriate process. The availability of such a process will expand the food, pharma, and polymer applications requiring a purity of more than 99 percent. Read more in the Berkeley Lab Newscenter.

ABPDU Collaborates with Mango Materials Thanks to Small Business Vouchers Pilot

Thanks to the Energy Department’s Small Business Voucher pilot, bioenergy startup Mango Materials is testing new processes of producing renewable plastics that are biodegradable and petroleum-free. Last fall, Mango Materials received a $200,000 voucher to work with Berkeley Lab. Through this partnership, the company gets access to Berkeley’s Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU). Read more on Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy website.

ABPDU and Cyclotron Road Collaboration: ‘Mutually beneficial’

As Cyclotron Road, a program launched as a pilot by Berkeley Lab in 2014, continues to hits its stride, Berkeley Lab scientists are also benefiting from this success. In this article Todd Pray, ABPDU’s Program Head, comments on how the collaboration with Visolis has been mutually beneficial. Read more on the Berkeley Lab Newscenter.

Chief Pilot: the ABPDU, where the elite meet to defeat petroleum

Every airline has pilots, but then there’s the Chief Pilot, and in the advanced bioeconomy the chief pilot is known by the ungainly acronym ABPDU, which might as well decode as “All Bioeconomy Processes Developed Upstairs,” but actually stands for the far more modest “Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit.”

–BioFuels Digest, December 2016

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California Assemblymember Richard Bloom Visits ABPDU

The ABPDU welcomed Richard Bloom, Assemblymember of the 50th District of the California State Assembly, on November 21. As Chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation, Assemblymember Bloom has pushed for increasing renewable energy development and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The visit to ABPDU served as an opportunity to learn about the latest developments in bioenergy research and bioproducts production.

Lygos Wins Bio-Based Chemical Innovation of the Year Award

Industrial biotechnology company Lygos, Inc. won the “Bio-Based Chemical Innovation of the Year” award at the inaugural Bio-Based Live conference in San Francisco, California, for its biobased method to produce malonic acid, a versatile chemical used to make products ranging from flavorings in food to ultraviolet radiation-resistant coatings. Lygos developed the process and demonstrated pre-pilot-scale production in early 2015 at ABPDU. The “Bio-Based Chemical Innovation of the Year” award is one of only two awards given at Bio-Based Live, which brought together more than 150 bioenergy leaders to focus on the commercialization of bioproducts.

BETO Funding Recipients to Collaborate with ABPDU

BETO is providing $1 million in vouchers to assist five companies advance their energy technologies in Round 2 of the DOE’s Small Business Vouchers Pilot. Of the five companies, three will be collaborating with ABPDU. They are:

  • ZymoChem, Berkeley and Emeryville, California (partnership with LBNL): ZymoChem is engineering microbes to eliminate carbon loss during the production of chemicals, such as adipic acid, from renewable feedstocks by designing completely new biosynthetic pathways. ZymoChem will work with the LBNL Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU) to validate E. coli’s capability to tolerate high product concentrations during fermentation and demonstrate the ability to recover purified products for customers to evaluate.
  • HelioBioSys, Woodside, California (partnerships with LBNL and SNL): In order to validate cyanobacteria as a renewable source of sugar for biofuel production, HelioBioSys needs to evaluate growth on a larger scale in outdoor conditions to obtain monomeric sugar types and yields, fermentation suitability, and by-product opportunities. Data generated from this study at the LBNL ABPDU and SNL’s indoor algal testbed facility will improve their existing techno-economic model and improve HelioBioSys’ ability to secure funding for a pilot test facility.
  • Mango Materials, Albany, California (partnerships with LBNL and LANL): Mango Materials has a biogas fermentation process to produce sustainable and biodegradable biopolymers. The company is seeking to improve its ability to cost-effectively separate and de-water polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) from the fermentation broth and non-PHA cell mass. The goal is to further develop a cost-effective separation process for intracellular products with a path forward to scale-up at the LBNL ABPDU.