Cobalt demonstrates advanced strain in fermentation process

By Bryan Sims | March 13, 2012

In partnership with the U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Mountain View, Calif.-based biobased n-butanol technology developer Cobalt Technologies recently completed multiple fermentation runs of its advanced biocatalyst in a 9,000-liter vessel, exceeding its target yield and other performance metrics for a commercial-scale production facility.

For the demonstration, Cobalt utilized the NREL Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility in the National Bioenergy Center facilities in Golden, Colo., which is designed for large-scale fermentation and downstream processing. Using a genetically unmodified strain of Clostridium at the test facility, Cobalt demonstrated the biocatalyst’s ability to convert nonfood-based substrates into renewable n-butanol. Overall, tests resulted in high sugar conversion (the amount of sugar consumed by the bacteria) and high yields of n-butanol (the amount of butanol produced by the bacteria).

Prior to its successful demonstration of the biocatalyst at NREL, Cobalt, in cooperation with Andritz, a globally leading supplier of technologies, equipment and plants for the pulp and paper industry, successfully tested its dilute acid hydrolysis pretreatment process on lignocellulosic biomass such as wood, bagasse and agricultural residues at Andritz’s pulp and paper mill demonstration facility in Springfield, Ohio.

According to Andrew Meyer, senior vice president of business development for Cobalt, the fermentation runs took about three months to complete, adding that the production milestone reinforces the company’s scale-up efforts.

“Our view is that, in order to be sustainable long-term, we believe we need to have a cost advantage relative to petroleum-derived n-butanol,” Meyer told Biorefining Magazine. “Typically, we like to focus on having a cost-advantaged position of 40 to 60 percent relative to petroleum and these runs helped us validate that.”

While Cobalt’s technology has the ability to perform on a continuous basis, the testing was conducted using batch processes to fully demonstrate the flexibility of the technology to meet the needs of potential customers and partners. The n-butanol produced during the demonstration will be sent to several customers for product certification, which also positions the company to be able to quickly move to commercial-scale fermentations with key strategic partners, Meyer said.

Currently, Cobalt has a strategic alliance with international specialty chemical giant Rhodia to jointly develop renewable n-butanol biorefineries throughout Latin America. Additionally, the company is working with American Process Inc. to add on n-butanol production volumes at API’s cellulosic ethanol production demonstration facility currently under development in Alpena, Mich.

“[The demonstration] brings the strategic partnerships to closure,” Meyer said, adding that Cobalt is currently vetting potential sites in the U.S. to plot its first commercial-scale n-butanol production facility. “We’ve been working that avenue in parallel to these demonstration runs, and so we’re looking to put closure to the strategic partnerships that will bring the capital formation to the table, which will be the capital required to build the commercial facility, and the feedstock and offtake agreement that go with that.”