Toyota develops yeast for cellulosic ethanol conversion

By Erin Voegele | October 06, 2011

Toyota Motor Corp. recently held an event at its Toyota Biotechnology and Afforestation Laboratory to showcase technologies it has developed as part of its biotechnology and afforestation business. A newly developed yeast strain that increases the production yield of cellulosic ethanol was one of the technologies on display at the event.

According to information released by Toyota, its researchers used gene recombination technology to develop a new strain of yeast for cellulosic ethanol production. The new yeast is highly efficient at fermenting xylose, and is also highly resistant to fermentation-inhibiting substances such as acetic acid. “As a result, the yeast has achieved one of the highest ethanol fermentation density levels in the world (approximately 47 grams per liter), and is expected to improve biofuel yield and significantly reduce production costs,” said Toyota in a statement.

The company also stated that research is currently underway to develop comprehensive technologies for the various processes involved in cellulosic ethanol production, including raw material pretreatment, enzymatic saccharification and yeast fermentation. Toyota said it is striving to achieve a stable supply of feedstock as well as technologies that reduce production costs. “Ultimately, [Toyota] plans to further improve biofuel production yield and to cooperate with energy companies to realize its goal of commercializing cellulosic ethanol by 2020,” said the company in a press release.

Toyota also noted that in addition to further refining its yeast technology, it is making progress in improving the production processes. “In the medium- to long-term, we will promote the spread of renewable fuels in cooperation with energy companies and the like.”

According to Simon, his company is developing algae strains, bioreactor designs and extraction technologies, and will look to develop partnerships with entities that have technology to convert algae biomass into jet fuel. “We believe there are a number of unique aspects to our bioreactors,” Simon said. “We are receiving productivity that is higher than what you hear about commercially. We also have a lower cap-ex cost than most photobioreactor designs. We spent the time to do some manufacturing processing analysis and have figured out a way to drop our cost of production. In addition, on the extraction side we believe we have a unique extraction process that allows us to break—or fractionate—the algae into various valuable pieces.” Simon further explains that while he cannot share specific details regarding the extraction technology at this time, the process does not involve the use of hexane. To date, Heliae has filed 64 patents to protect its intellectual property.

The company ultimately intends to license its technology to third parties, but will be scaling up to the next level internally. “We believe we will be in commercial production by the beginning of 2013,” Simon said. “In fact, we have just leased land to build a small commercial facility near our headquarters in Arizona. We would begin construction on that in 2012.”

This story first appeared in Biorefining Magazine.