"We envision having a full-scale integrated biorefinery producing high-value bioplastics and gels – at that scale we can generate sufficient biomass to support a modest biofuel component."
Biochemical company, HelioBioSys, came into the news in August this year after it patented an organism that is seven-times more effective than algae in the production of biofuels. To create the highly efficient and robust bacteria the US company used the latest techniques – fed by energy from the sun and carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere – to ferment into biofuels or chemical intermediates.
The man behind HelioBioSys, the co-founder and chief executive officer, David Smernoff, is the subject of this week’s 5 minutes with… David generously shares with Dave Songer some details of how it all began for HelioBioSys, the role that biofuels have to play in the future and the highs and lows of working in the bio-based industry.
Dave Songer (DSo): It’s a pleasure to meet you, David. Can I start by asking what first inspired you to work in the bio-based industry?
David Smernoff (DS): Seeing the first photo of Earth from Space (Apollo 8) and the Apollo 11 moon landing made me appreciate the wonder and frailty of our planet. These events triggered my passion for environmental preservation and stewardship.
I learned about climate change during my first year as a graduate student at Stanford in 1987. My research focused on the interaction between elevated effects of CO2 and nitrogen nutrition on plant growth, and from that time I knew I wanted to focus on ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Much of my career looked at creating life support systems for humans (NASA-Ames), but I always maintained a strong interest in protecting the life support systems on Earth for humans and all life.
In 2009 my co-founder and I started to discuss ways to support the biofuel industry using our expertise in microbiology and ecology. We wanted to do something to reduce fossil fuel dependence to improve public and environmental health. Our background led us quickly to cyanobacteria as a useful engine, along the way we have pivoted a few times to address the hard realities of challenging the embedded fossil fuel and plastics industries.
(DSo): Fascinating, how did you achieve that?
(DS): We started by genetically modifying a cyanobacteria to produce ethanol directly. It worked well, so much so that they poisoned themselves with ethanol, and the volatilization problem made us realise it would be very expensive to maintain healthy cultures and siphon off the ethanol efficiently. We then decided to co-culture the modified cyanobacteria with yeast, which also worked pretty well and led us to settle on cyanobacterial sugar production as our core feature. Following that we integrated nitrogen fixing species and strong sugar producers into our consortium. The volatility of the biofuel and sugar markets – plus the complex nature of the polysaccharide – led us to our more recent pivot, focusing on polysaccharide production and conversion to bio-based materials.
(DSo): What do you enjoy most about your job?
(DS): The most enjoyable part of this work is collaborating with such a diverse range of experts who are passionate about overcoming the technical and economic challenges facing the bioeconomy. Since we began, we’ve meet biologists, engineers and business experts and have really enjoyed working with them all and learning from them.
Amusingly, I even love the long hours, low pay and uncertainty! It’s also great to wait for months to hear about another grant application not being funded.
(DSo): What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio sector?
(DS): Stay well grounded in the science, technology or engineering of your idea but never doubt for a minute that real success will require paying even closer attention to the economics of getting your product into the market. Hang on to that rush from the 1% flash of inspiration as you sweat through the remaining 99% of the work.
(DS): Cyanobacteria have been around for more than 2.5 billion years and are the original carbon source for fossil fuels, along with green algae. They put all the oxygen in our atmosphere (thanks guys!) and our mantra is that it’s time to put them back to work. The real challenge is how to take advantage of their photosynthetic efficiency, and nitrogen fixation and sugar excretion traits to create an economically viable cyano-industrial biorefinery.
It’s clear that a successful biofuel industry has to pay careful attention to co-products and create efficient systems that embrace the cradle to cradle approach to energy and mass within the system. Building on the extensive work done for aquatic biomass/algae systems and integrated biorefineries, we think cyanobacteria present a key foundational system to capture photons for upgrading to fossil fuel-equivalent products (fuels and biomaterials) with superior sustainability metrics.
(DSo): What sort of impact do you think the fuel could have when it is totally up and running?
(DS): We started off thinking that fermentable sugars for biofuels would fill a void in the transition to a reduced fossil fuel dependent economy. However, that’s been turned upside down by falling oil prices, natural gas becoming abundant and the challenge of displacing the huge volumes and incumbency of fossil fuels. It’s clear now that to make fuels work, the co-products have to support the overall economics of biomass production and processing.
By focusing on higher margin products, requiring much smaller production volumes, we will be able to demonstrate pilot-scale operations. By gaining that toe hold, over time we’ll be able to expand to the production volumes that are required to meet reasonable demands for biofuel. Because we’re looking at the hydrothermal liquefaction process to create a biodiesel blendstock, our rural biorefineries could provide some part of the diesel use in agriculture, reducing transportation costs for the fuel and improving local agricultural sustainability.
(DSo): What is the biggest hurdle that you think the bio-based economy faces, and how do you think it can be overcome?
(DS): The fundamental hurdle is the embedded energy in fossil fuels. They have a huge advantage in that their photosynthetically-derived carbon has been marinated deep in the ground at high temperatures and pressures for millions of years, resulting in a very high energy density and diverse array of constituents. So it is very challenging to meet current energy and material demands that rely on capturing current sunlight and converting that carbon to fuels and products.
When you couple that to the estimated $5.3tn annual subsidy (2015) for the fossil fuel industry via tax breaks and incentives, favourable policies and externalising pollution/climate change impacts it is very difficult to compete. When you add to that a 100+ year head start in the market, it’s anything but a level playing field.
I think everyone in the bio-based market recognises these challenges and work required to educate policymakers and the public about the need for alternative energy and material sources, as well as how bio-based alternatives seek to internalise all production and disposal costs to ensure the continuity of the earth’s ecosystem for future generations. We have to start replacing significant fractions of a barrel of oil to address climate change and convert our economy to one that lives within its current solar budget. There is ample energy coming into the system, and we have the technical ability to harvest it in many ways, what we need is a global shift in the economic policies that prevent widespread adoption. A carbon tax would be a great place to start.
(DSo): Where would you like to see HelioBioSys in ten years’ time?
(DS): We envision having a full-scale (500-1,000 acres of production ponds) integrated biorefinery producing high-value bioplastics and gels – at that scale we can generate sufficient biomass to support a modest biofuel component. We will have multiple partners supporting production and downstream processing facilities, local distribution of blendstocks and bioplastics. At that point we would like to begin licensing the technology for expansion to new geographic locations.
(DSo): What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
(DS): Well, two categories are particularly intriguing to me. The first is a biodegradable replacement for plastic microbeads, which are a huge environmental and public health problem (we’re already ingesting them via our water supplies) that need to be replaced with a bio-based, biodegradable alternative.
The second is non-toxic food packaging films. The current perfluorinate-based films used for takeaway and fast food containers are a public health concern, and a functionally equivalent non-toxic bio-based material is needed to reduce this source of toxic exposure. We’ll be looking closely at both of these applications for our polysaccharide. They are particularly exciting because they replace fossil fuel-derived products and protect both consumers and the environment.
(DSo): Some fantastic insights there, David. Thanks again for your time.
Read last week’s 5 minutes with… Todd Cline, section head at Procter & Gamble.
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