Accelerating the Commercialization of New Bio-therapeutics

“FermWorks will get us to market faster. “We can use our heads on the bio- chemical problem and not spend our time fighting with process control configuration or design changes or data acquisition – it’s all done by FermWorks.”

Fred Moesler
Director, Process Development
ZeaChem, Inc.

ZeaChem Inc., a Silicon Valley venture-funded startup, is pioneering biorefinery technology for the conversion of biomass (currently wood chips) to cellulosic ethanol fuel using a combination of biochemical and thermochemical processing. ZeaChem’s goal is to produce one billion gallons of fuel annually at less than $1.00 per gallon. The ethanol market is being driven at a rapid pace in order to provide energy security in the U.S.

The Challenge

  • Develop economically viable cellulosic ethanol fuel to provide energy security in the U.S.
  • Achieve critical product development milestones on start-up company budget
  • Leverage low-cost, refurbished bioreactors
  • Find cost-effective, readily available software for advanced process control and data collection that could be up and running fast and would also support long- term growth requirements

The Solution

  • FermWorks turnkey solution was up and running the day it was installed
  • FermWorks interfaces with the hardware, controls processes and manages the data, allowing ZeaChem researchers to refocus from bioreactor operation to perfecting recipes, yields and processes
  • FermWorks real-time data trending and front-end tools indicated a better transfer point – reducing lag time and providing process consistency – critical success factors for ZeaChem product development

The results

  • The critical milestone, production of the first liter of cellulosic ethanol on a large scale, was met on time
  • With FermWorks, ZeaChem is able to keep its hardware spending low, while scaling up lab operations
  • With FermWorks, managers are able to readily observe experiments in real-time and the company’s investors are impressed with the professional reports and displays

The Challenge

ZeaChem is racing to develop cellulosic ethanol-based biofuels that will help solve one of the United States’ key security problems – energy security. While scientific brilliance is a critical component of the solution, other essential elements are efficient and rapid execution, within the constraints of a start-up company budget.

As a VC-funded start-up, and one of several biofuels pioneers, ZeaChem is under pressure to meet aggressive product development milestones and critical time-to- market goals. To efficiently meet these goals, ZeaChem searched for low-cost, refurbished bioreactors and found some 1990s-vintage B. Braun (Sartorius) bioreactors that it could use to conduct fermentation experiments.

The used bioreactor hardware had no automation or process control software. ZeaChem researchers were controlling the bioreactors by hand, using the LCD screens on the fermenters. “We could operate the things, but there was no advanced process control ability and no historical data collection capability. We wanted to have these two essential components to facilitate rapid scale-up,” said Fred Moesler, Director of Process Development at ZeaChem.

“We were under incredible pressure to meet an important product development milestone for our investors. We needed to dramatically reduce the amount of time our team spent running the bioreactors so they could focus on perfecting the recipe and the process,” Moesler said. “We knew that the original hardware manufacturer would not respond in time for our critical situation and the big commercial software automation companies require long lead-times and big dollars. We needed a combination of process control and data historian that could be up and running fast but would also work in the long term. In addition, I didn’t want to pay for a high-end DCS at this point. Our contact at National Instruments connected us with WireWorks West.”

The Solution

The rapid response from WireWorks West was exceptional. FermWorks was installed as a turnkey solution for fermentation data management and process control at ZeaChem and was up and running the day it was installed. “We were under a time-critical situation and having FermWorks ready to install quickly, out- of-the-box, was critical to our success. Without FermWorks and its fast implementation, ZeaChem might have missed one of its key milestones – producing its first liter of cellulosic ethanol on a large scale,” Moesler said.

“For example, we were running the fermenters using FermWorks to monitor the trending of the data, and using FermWorks’ front-end tools to see how everything was growing in real-time,” Moesler said. “By seeing data in FermWorks that we couldn’t see before, we recognized something about our organism that allowed us to pick a better transfer point. This change made our organism come up faster,

taking lag time out of the system. It made sense in hindsight, but it was really seeing it as it was happening in FermWorks that told us it would do this.”

Part of ZeaChem’s rationale in choosing FermWorks was its ability to rapidly add systems as the processes scale up. “Not only did FermWorks help us meet our immediate milestone, it also gives us the ability to expand to larger fermenters and rapidly duplicate process systems as we add other fermenters, without changing the front-end or process control. We can focus on the actual experiment and yields, relying on FermWorks to interface to all the hardware,” Moesler said.

The Results

With the help of FermWorks, ZeaChem reached its critical milestone on time. “FermWorks improved the efficiency of the researchers, allowing them to spend their time operating rather than configuring and recording data from each fermentation run,” Moesler said. “FermWorks allowed us to rapidly evolve fermentation development, adding new equipment and operating in a very short time frame. It’s pretty mind-boggling what we pulled off. FermWorks was a part of that.”

The most significant business benefit from FermWorks was that it allowed ZeaChem to rapidly evolve its fermentation development, utilizing low cost, vintage-equipment and beginning operation in a very short time frame with rapidly configurable fermenter process control.

The key technical benefit was that FermWorks enabled ZeaChem to get a more consistent fermentation operation resulting in a more consistent, repeatable production chain.

“Our management team is thrilled with the results enabled by FermWorks. Our founder and VP of R&D, Dan Verser, really enjoys looking at the FermWorks screens to watch the Fermentation process in real-time, first hand.”

“We are expanding our FermWorks installation to another four bioreactors and plan to expand further in the future. Having the data historian and ability to do advanced controls and standardize on FermWorks, gives the added benefit that if we learn something on one fermenter, we can copy it to another. FermWorks has great scaling for research level,” Moesler said.

“Energy security, green energy and getting it to market fast are better for us and for everyone,” said Fred Moesler, Director of Process Development at ZeaChem. “I am a firm believer that for biofuels to become viable, they need to be economically viable… that means cheap. A lot of people talk ‘green’ but very few people can afford to pay ‘green.’ With our process we intend to compete head-on with the oil companies. We intend to be able to compete with oil in the $40 a barrel a range,” Moesler concluded.

About ZeaChem

ZeaChem, Inc. is developing a cellulose-based biorefinery platform producing either ethanol or a broad portfolio of other chemicals. ZeaChem’s indirect approach leapfrogs the yield, capital and CO2 problems associated with traditional ethanol production practices and other potential cellulosic ethanol processes. ZeaChem currently operates a pilot plant at its Menlo Park, CA laboratory.

ZeaChem’s innovative process was designed for high yield. The company is pioneering biorefinery technology using combinations of biochemical and thermochemical processing steps.