Codexis to develop improved yeasts for sugarcane ethanol

By Kris Bevill | September 28, 2011

Technology developer Codexis Inc. has signed a joint development agreement with Raizen Energia S.A., Brazil’s largest sugar and ethanol producer, to improve sugar-based ethanol production using Codexis’ “directed evolution” biocatalyst technology platform.

“This agreement is very timely, since sugarcane ethanol in Brazil clearly needs to continue improving productivity to achieve expected yields in the years to come,” Raizen CEO Vasco Diaz said. “Raizen and Codexis strongly believe that investing in technology is a critical path to achieve this.”

Codexis has developed a trademarked platform called the CodeEvolver which, according to the company, combines DNA shuffling and proprietary bioinformatics to create new biocatalysts with characteristics that exceed the performance of those found in naturally occurring enzymes. The platform enables Codexis to develop specialized catalysts that can be used in the production of biofuels and biobased chemicals. The technology can also be applied to carbon capture processes at coal-fired power plants and, in the future, to wastewater treatment operations. One of the focuses of the agreement with Raizen is to improve the performance of yeasts use in ethanol production through the use of the CodeEvolver technology. Codexis CEO Alan Shaw said the performance improvements will be the result of increased ethanol yield, tolerance to alcohol and ability to compete with wild yeasts from the cane. Shaw said it is too early to speculate as to the percentage increase of yields resulting from the technology improvements.

“Working together, we expect to quickly improve the performance and cost structure of first-generation ethanol, now in use throughout Brazil,” he said. “We look forward to a productive and long-term development partnership.”

As part of the agreement, Codexis will retain commercialization rights and Raizen will receive preferential commercial terms. The pair expects to establish pilot production using the improved yeasts at one of Raizen’s 24 sugar mills. Raizen was established earlier this year as a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell plc and Brazilian sugar and ethanol producer Cosan Ltd. As part of the joint venture, Shell transferred approximately 5.6 million shares of its Codexis stock to Raizen, making it the technology firm’s largest shareholder. Raizen has the capacity to produce up to 2.2 billion gallons of ethanol annually and up to 900 megawatts of power through the use of sugarcane bagasse. Following the transfer of shares, Shaw commented that Raizen’s access to feedstocks and ethanol production experience offers the potential to accelerate future commercialization of renewable fuels. Codexis also has a global partnership with Shell to develop advanced nonfood biofuels, he said.