When the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit (ABPDU) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) commenced operations in 2012, the initial focus was on overcoming barriers to biofuel commercialization. The 15,000 square-foot facility 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 process of fermentation, in which microorganisms metabolize organic matter, is often a requisite step in converting biomass to biofuels or other bioproducts, and remains one of the ABPDU’s core capabilities. However, in recent years, the scope of the facility’s activities has expanded to utilize a broader range of raw materials to produce a variety of bio-based material, chemical and protein end products.
“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.”
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.
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.
Massachusetts-based Kalion received support through a DOE program to work with the ABPDU to reach full manufacturing scale production of bio-based glucaric acid. One of the “Top Value Added Chemicals from Biomass” identified in a 2004 report, glucaric acid is most commonly found in detergents and can be a substitute for less environmentally friendly phosphates.
“As a very small, lean company we needed another point of validation with our investors,” said Kalion President Darcy Prather, speaking to a common issue of scaling up manufacturing processes. “The timing worked perfectly so we were able to go from a two-liter to a 300-liter run via fermentation at the ABPDU.”
Bolt Threads 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. “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 a vital technology in the 21st century economy, said Ron Shigeta, Chief Science Officer for Indie Bio, a San Francisco-based biotech accelerator. “But there are almost no resources to help small companies doing fermentation to develop their business. 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.”
“We have worked with many types of partners and are invigorated by the unique challenges and opportunities presented by each one,” said Pray. “Whether it is producing specialty bio-based chemicals used in flavorings, fragrances and cosmetics, or polymers used in packaging, coatings, and adhesives, we are excited to play a part in moving these innovations from the bench to the marketplace.”