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MicroBioGen achieves technology breakthrough in 2G biofuels

BREAKING NEWS | Sydney, 12 July 2021  

In a major technological breakthrough, Australian biotech company MicroBioGen has successfully demonstrated the production of both high-protein food and low carbon bioethanol from non-food material using a single biological agent.

The breakthrough follows 15 years of research and development in MicroBioGen’s high-tech laboratories in Sydney to enhance a genetically-modified version of the common yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

It comes as the Federal Government steps up its effort to source new and innovative technologies to help achieve a net-zero-carbon economy. MicroBioGen’s technology, developed in Australia in collaboration with its global partner Novozymes, provides a technological solution to the problem of producing low-carbon fuels while also increasing food production.

Funded in part with a $4 million grant from the Federal Government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), MicroBioGen’s work will boost the role of second-generation (2G) biofuels in reducing carbon emissions and improving food security by enabling food and fuel production from abundant, low-value waste plant material.

MicroBioGen CEO Geoff Bell said the company’s project was a game-changer that dramatically improved the commercial viability and environmental performance of biofuels.

“For the first time ever, a single yeast strain – optimised using our proprietary technology – can produce both clean fuel and food from non-food biomass,” Mr Bell said.

Overcoming key barriers to 2G biofuels

First-generation (1G) ethanol production typically relies on processing corn or sugarcane, converting some of the food portion of these crops into fuel. This limits both the production volumes and the amount of CO2 that can be removed from the atmosphere. Currently, the liquid waste stream provides little or no economic nor environmental benefits.

2G ethanol is produced from agricultural waste products such as timber offcuts, crop residues or waste sugarcane pulp (bagasse). As this material is difficult and relatively costly to break down into component sugars, progress in commercialising 2G technology using conventional yeasts has been slow. Converting waste streams into higher-value products economically has also remained challenging.

MicroBioGen’s yeast agent overcomes these barriers, converting both hard-to-catalyse sugars derived from non-food substrates into biofuel, and waste by-product into a high-value food source.

“The unique properties of our yeast allow it to convert the biomass sugars to biofuels more efficiently, where other yeasts struggle. Crucially, our optimised yeast can then grow on its own waste stream, converting this waste to a high-value protein suitable as an animal feed,” Mr Bell said.

“Our process is shown to be less costly, use less energy and produce fewer emissions than other comparable 2G biofuel processes. The food produced also uses significantly less land than equivalent production elsewhere.

“And by capturing CO2 generated during the process, we take carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s a virtuous cycle – the more biofuel we create, the more food we produce and the more carbon we remove. We’re replacing fossil fuels and adding to food security,” he said.

Global export market opportunity beckons

MicroBioGen’s $8 million project commenced in 2017 with the intention of optimising yeast genetics to reduce the cost of 2G biofuel production and boost its performance on key sustainability metrics. MicroBioGen’s yeast achieved on average between 97% and 99% against each of the 13 success criteria established for the project.

A peer-reviewed analysis of the research findings[1] found that 2G biofuel manufacture using MicroBioGen’s yeast strain and process, compared with benchmark commercial 2G yeast strains, reduced CO2 emissions by 29%, fossil energy use by 11% and water use by 75%. It also established that the food created from sugarcane bagasse in MicroBioGen’s production process would be the equivalent of 2.4 times the food of crops grown elsewhere[2]. The results exclude the additional potential benefits from sequestering CO2.

ARENA CEO Darren Miller said: “ARENA is delighted to have supported MicroBioGen’s project. The research represents high-quality Australian innovation and a step forward in the commercial viability of 2G biofuel. MicroBioGen’s work opens up new possibilities for biofuels as a sustainable energy source and, potentially, significant new export markets for Australia.”

Mr Bell added: “Having established the improved commercial viability of a 2G fuel-and-feed biorefinery, the MicroBioGen team is now focused on the global commercial opportunity arising from our technology. We will be working with Novozymes to trial the new optimised strains and bring them to market as soon as possible. It is our hope that the macro, micro and regulatory conditions in Australia will support the deployment of this world-leading technology locally.”

[1] Conducted by Life Cycle Strategies

[2] For every acre of sugarcane used to make 2G biofuel, 2.4 acres less farmland would be needed to grow food for human consumption. 

“For the first time ever, a single yeast strain – optimised using our proprietary technology – can produce both clean fuel and food from non-food biomass.”

Geoff Bell, CEO, MicroBioGen