Grant supports scale-up of AFEX cellulosic pretreatment process

By Katie Fletcher | June 09, 2014

The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program for the Bio-Economy, launched by Michigan State University and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., announced the first three BioAg projects selected for grants to help make them broadly available for consumer use. One of the projects demonstrates the large scale production of biobased chemicals using MSU’s patented ammonia fiber expansion (AFEX) pretreatment technology for cellulose-based feed stocks.

The patented pretreatment process, developed by Bruce Dale, University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science, uses ammonia to make the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose in plants 75 percent more efficient than when conventional enzymes are used alone. Using acid to pretreat cellulose is a common way to break down the material into fermentable sugars. Acid pretreatment requires the material to be washed and detoxified, removing nutrients during the process that have to be added back later. Cellulosic material pretreated with the AFEX process does not need to be washed or detoxified eliminating the need to add nutrients to create the cellulosic ethanol. “Using AFEX as the pretreatment process can dramatically reduce the cost of making biofuels from cellulose,” Dale said.

MBI, a non-profit subsidiary of the MSU Foundation, applied for a grant to use in the development of the AFEX technology. Specifically looking to scale-up, license and eventually commercialize the technology, MBI is using Dale’s fundamental research to develop and derisk the technology, demonstrate its’ commercial viability and transition the technology to commercial partners.

MBI recognized that agriculture residue biomass is low density, inefficient to store or transport and is not close to biorefineries. As a result they are working to commercialize the process of using AFEX pretreated biomass to create a cost efficient, storable, readily transportable biomass commodity utilizing decentralized AFEX depots. Specifically the AFEX pretreated biomass will be densified into pellets to be used as a food source for ruminant animals and humans, or shipped to biorefineries to make bio-based fuels and other sample materials.

“AFEX as we see it is one of those once in a lifetime transformational technologies that can have a huge impact on the world,” said Allen Julian, chief business officer with MBI. “For example, you can take AFEX pretreated corn stover and feed it to cows, and they can extract four times the amount of sugars from that pretreated biomass than if they just ate untreated corn stover.

Biomass for this project’s use is available in abundance. A couple billion tons of agricultural residues from just wheat, corn and rice are already grown. Julian says a portion needs to be returned to the soil, but easily 500 million tons of agricultural residue could be upgraded into a feed or a biorefinery feedstock.

“There is a potential huge impact that you could replace a portion of the grain that animals are currently fed, for example beef or dairy cows, and free up a whole bunch of that corn grain and better purpose it by substituting AFEX pellets,” Julian said. AFEX pretreatment makes sugars accessible to the enzyme with the added bonus of the capability of being used as a feed material or biorefinery feedstock, Julian added.

The grant money will support the next step of the project, which focuses on creating a commercial scale depot. “Our intention is to take the technology, which is currently practiced at a pilot scale of 0.5 to 1 ton a day and scale it up to 100 tons a day,” said Julian.

This step is no small feat for the project. Julian estimates the depot will cost $19 million to $20 million with more money needed to run large scale trials and for the people’s time working on the project. Overall Julian estimates $45 million should be fundraised to spend over a span of about five years.

Fundraising and construction will optimistically take place over the next 12 to 18 months with the hopes of having the facility running in 2017, according to Julian. After a year or two of application trials and training operators and employees Julian says licenses could be purchased by 2019 or before.  

This particular project received around $100,000 in grant money from MSU, with about $70,000 allocated to MBI’s efforts and $30,000 towards Dale’s lab. The other projects that received grant money include GeoYields, a comprehensive crop yield model system, enabling higher crop production with more efficient use of inputs, such as fertliziaers and irrigation, led by Bruno Basso an associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at MSU. The third project that received grant funding was developed by Gemma Reguera, a principal investigator at the Reguera Lab in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at MSU. She developed a novel electrochemical bioreactor design which can convert low-cost pretreated feedstocks, such as corn stover, into useful end products, such as ethanol and biobutanol.

The purpose of these grants is to strengthen research, develop new technologies, and contribute to MSU’s infrastructure of teaching and deployment of knowledge.