The next generation of biofuels will need the next generation of laboratory technology—With ever tightening regulations and the need to gain access to analytical data anytime and anywhere, LIMS (Laboratory Information Management Systems) become a key driver of biofuels production. In fact, the quest for the alternative energy sources might well be decided in the lab.
Biofuels processes have undergone tremendous innovation over the past decade: their most fundamental form — converting plant-derived sugars and starches into ethanol using fermentation — is rapidly giving way to more advanced reactions that take advantage of synthetic biology to digest cellulose and other non-food plant products. As Roberto Rodriguez, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, puts it, “Growth opportunities for first–generation biofuels are close to exhausted.”
While new processes offer greatly increased efficiency and productivity, they are also significantly more complex to oversee and manage. The move to synthetic biology and engineered organisms brings with it much more complex processes, that combine molecular biology and systems biology with engineering principles to design biological systems. The laboratories required for this method are therefore reliant on more instrumentation, more skilled analytical techniques and more science to ensure quality, safety and efficacy, and above all more data.
Because they rely on fairly simple fermentations, first–generation biofuels required relatively little monitoring during production. Second–generation biofuels production saw a gain in efficiencies as the process moved from a fermentation process to one reliant on an enzymatic reaction, creating ethanol from a much broader range of feedstock options.
Today’s more complex third–generation biofuels production, by contrast, must rely on custom–engineered microorganisms such as new E. coli strains to transform organic matter feedstocks into fuels. These microorganisms are much more sensitive to environmental factors than the yeast strains used in first–generation production: unexpected changes in the pH or temperature of their environment can have an adverse affect on the quality of the engineered organism and its ability to act as the process requires.
The Next Generation
For that reason, the laboratories for third–generation biofuel processes require much more advanced technologies: The analytical rigor required with complex microorganisms, increased data management and, ultimately, added regulatory compliance demands are just some of the reasons that next–generation biofuels also require a next-generation lab.
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