MicroBioGen chief executive, Geoff Bell

Biotech start-up boss Geoff Bell employs 24 people at Macquarie Park in Sydney, but says it’s a lonely gig in this city. “We’re like an orphan at the moment. Virtually everybody we work with is international because there’s very little industrial biotech going on in Australia.” 

Bioethanol is a clean-burning fuel that can be used in place of crude oil in most transport and industrial applications. 

This week Sydney-based company, MicroBioGen, revealed they could not only much more efficiently produce low carbon biofuels from agricultural by-product, but create a circular system that yields high-protein food as well. 

However, company chief executive, Geoff Bell says the technology is receiving a fraction of the attention it deserves, partly due to the success of international oil companies discrediting it. 

“The reason why biofuels have had so much trouble is because they’re so good,” Bell said. 

“Ethanol and biofuels in general go straight into the current distribution system — the same cars and trucks already on the roads — and that distribution system is controlled by oil.”

Earlier this month, US oil refiners successfully overturned a provision allowing the sale of a 15 per cent ethanol blend of fuel. 

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2019 rule by the Environmental Protection Agency allowing the higher biofuel blend, finding it to be a misreading of existing laws. 

“The oil companies won that case, basically on a technicality. And in the world we’re in, where climate change is a big deal…it’s terrible.” 

Another issue is that the focus of the sustainable transition has shifted primarily on to electric vehicles and green hydrogen, leaving biofuels on the periphery, despite their potential to replace crude oil in manufacturing plastics, rubber, biochemicals and other high-demand materials.

“My very fuzzy crystal ball would suggest that we’re not going to go all electric, because it’s not ideal for everything,” Bell said.

“There’s going to be electric, there’s going to be hydrogen, there’s going to be biofuels. There’s going to be a whole range of solutions to get us out of this sort of mess we’re in.”

Biofuels still pushing forward

Following 15 years of research at their laboratories in Sydney the team, led by principal scientists Paul Attfield and Philip Bell, were able to enhance a genetically-modified version of the common yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to make it more efficient and sustainable.

Globally, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, underpins the production of close to $2 trillion dollars worth of product every year across a range of applications, including creating 2G biofuels. 

The difference between first (1G) and second-generation (2G) biofuels is that the former uses edible parts of the plant that can be used for other means, while the latter uses plant biomass products that would otherwise go to waste. 

MicroBioGen’s lab

“The thing about biomass…it’s been evolved by nature not to get broken down because otherwise the tree would fall over because everything would eat it,” Bell said. 

Therefore, while biomass is much more plentiful, it is also much harder to convert to fuel. 

“The yeast that everyone uses to make biofuels doesn’t like all those sugars in biomass so it had to be engineered to get an organism that could handle the tougher conditions and convert more of the sugars,” Bell said. 

“So what we did is we took one of the best second generation organisms, and we improved it. We made it so it’s faster and more efficient.” 

A peer-reviewed analysis of MicroBioGen’s research found the company’s improved yeast strain and process, reduced CO2 emissions by 29 per cent, fossil energy use by 11 per cent and water use by 75 per cent compared with benchmark commercial 2G yeast strains.

The other thing the company did was create a yeast that grows on its own waste stream, creating a circular product producing biofuel and high protein feed. 

“When you produce biofuels there’s a waste stream that comes out the back end,” Bell explained. “It’s got any residual sugars that weren’t converted, as well as things like glycerine and organic acids, and you can’t just pour that down a river.”

“Our optimised yeast can then grow on this waste stream and convert it to a high-value protein suitable as an animal feed.”

Therefore, the output of the process becomes not just ethanol, but large amounts of yeast, which is high-protein, contains no anti-nutritionals and is also a probiotic.

“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.”

If you were to convert the dry pulp by-product, called Bagasse, from Australia’s sugarcane industry to ethanol, it could replace 10 per cent of Australia’s fuel requirements and create roughly 135 thousand tonnes of high-protein feed, according to Bell. 

“From my perspective, if you’re serious about climate change, we need to be cutting back CO2 emissions as quick as we can, and that would be more than just one solution to do that.”

Does Australia support biofuels? 

Supporting the company’s research was $4 million in funding from the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

ARENA chief executive Darren Miller said, “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.”

While the funding was crucial to the success of the project, Bell said it was a shame to see the support stopping there in terms of putting it into practice. 

“They’re supporting the technology, which we’re very grateful for, but one would argue that the government settings aren’t quite there to actually roll it out in Australia,” he said. 

“What will happen is the technology will first go overseas and then once it’s proven out there, it’ll come back to Australia. So it would be great to be able to do the technology and then deploy directly to Australia.” 

The company employs 24 people at its new lab in Macquarie Park, but Bell said being an industrial biotech company in Sydney can be a lonely existence. 

“We’re like an orphan at the moment. Virtually everybody we work with is international because there’s very little industrial biotech going on in Australia,” Bell said. 

Because it’s profitable the company is able to back its own expansion to a degree, but Bell said the plan was potentially to float it on the ASX within the coming year in order to secure the funding to go even further. 

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    1. We are looking more closely at this and take this as a callout for more nuanced and scientific information on whether biofuels are viable low carbon option or not.