ExxonMobil validates REG fermentation technology to produce biodiesel, will continue research

Synthetic Genomics’ scientists use advanced cell engineering technologies. Image: ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil and Renewable Energy Group (REG) say the companies’ joint research program has demonstrated the ability of REG’s patented fermentation technology to convert sugars from a variety of non-edible biomass sources into biodiesel.

“Our first challenge during the initial research was to determine technical feasibility and potential environmental benefits,” Vijay Swarup, vice-president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, said in a statement. “We’re optimistic as the results indicate good potential for advancing the technology, and we look forward to continuing our work with REG Life Sciences.”

During their initial research, the companies successfully validated the feasibility of the REG Life Sciences fermentation technology across multiple cellulosic sugar compositions produced with a variety of methods from various non-edible biomass sources.

The research also confirmed REG Life Sciences technology is capable of achieving substantial reductions of full-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional diesel fuel, the companies said in a press release.

ExxonMobil signed an agreement with REG in January 2016 to study the production of biodiesel through fermentation of renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste. The companies have agreed to extend the research program based on their positive findings and said they are excited to continue to jointly explore the technology’s potential for scalability.

“Biofuels today are made largely from food sources, such as corn and sugar cane,” said Swarup. “ExxonMobil is challenging that paradigm by exploring a portfolio of large-scale biofuels solutions that do not compete with food and water. Our work with REG Life Sciences has been critical to better understanding the potential for converting cellulosic feedstock from agricultural waste into a commercially viable diesel fuel, as well as the lifecycle greenhouse gas implications of that process.”

REG Life Sciences has developed proprietary technology that relies on microbes to convert cellulosic sugars into biodiesel in a one-step fermentation process. Cellulosic feedstocks derived from agricultural waste contain multiple types of sugars, including glucose and xylose, as well as impurities that can inhibit the fermentation process.

“The Life Sciences team, led by Fernando Sanchez-Riera, senior director, Fermentation Process Development, made key discoveries in advancing the commercialization of fermenting diverse cellulosic sugars into renewable, clean burning diesel fuel,” said Eric Bowen, vice president of REG Life Sciences.

“We believe our REG Life Sciences technology holds great potential as an innovation platform across multiple industries and can think of no partner better than ExxonMobil to help us realize that potential in fuels.”

A breakthrough in cellulosic biodiesel production could have broad implications for the transportation sector. Global demand for transportation-related energy is projected to increase by about 25 per cent through 2040, and accelerating the reduction in emissions from the transportation sector through technologies like biodiesel will play a critical role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil said it is also actively researching other emission-reducing technologies, including algae biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration. In June, ExxonMobil and partner Synthetic Genomics, Inc. announced a breakthrough in joint research into advanced biofuels involving the modification of an algae strain that more than doubled its oil content without significantly inhibiting the strain’s growth.

And in 2016, ExxonMobil announced its partnership with Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy, Inc. to advance the use of carbonate fuel cells to economically capture carbon emissions from natural gas power plants while generating hydrogen and additional electricity.

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