LIMS/BIofuel Production How LIMS Turns Complexity into Productivity for Biofuels Production

Author / Editor: Colin Thurston* / Dominik Stephan

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.

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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.

Process monitoring instruments thus play a critical role in ensuring production quality, but these instruments are only as useful as the data they generate. To ensure that instrument data provides as much utility as possible, biofuels producers must ensure that their LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) is able to accomplish four critical functions: integration (connecting all lab instruments and equipment to the LIMS and integrating the lab to other enterprise systems such as ERP, MES or PIMS), data processing (collecting instrument data and archiving it for future use), communication (distributing data throughout the organization in any format required) and regulatory compliance (secure data capture, established SOPs and methods, archiving raw instrument data, enhance uptime via internal maintenance and calibration schedules). A LIMS that excels at all four is a critical part of next–generation biofuels production.

From Data to Downtime

Cellulose feedstocks can take weeks to break down -- a process that produces an enormous amount of data, as analytical instruments monitor the batch the entire time. A LIMS can collate this data from multiple instruments and apply advanced algorithms to identify and notify lab managers of any points of concern that fall outside of acceptable levels. Quality issues can thus be detected, making it possible to halt the process before further contaminating the current batch.

This drastically reduces the time between error detection and resolution. Reduced response times, on the other hand, are critical for ensuring product quality and reducing waste. This automation capability becomes more and more important as production processes scale; the sheer volume of data generated by a large biofuels production facility makes manual data handling impractical.

One for All: How to Keep Stakeholders Updated

Like most industries, biofuels producers must keep multiple stakeholders informed throughout production. When the LIMS is fully integrated with all laboratory equipment as well as with existing manufacturing systems, lab data can become a part of the organization’s key business metrics and be shared in any required format, from analytical spectral data to management dashboards.

In addition to process data, a LIMS can also maintain and monitor instrument maintenance schedules.

When a unit is due for service, the workflow established in the LIMS provides a corresponding notification. This ensures that all instrumentation is performing at optimal rates and downtime is avoided. In addition, the LIMS can store the digital standard operating procedure (SOP) illustrating the maintenance process. Proper and timely maintenance is critical: A faulty instrument could affect the accuracy of measurement data and, ultimately, compromise the finished product. At worst, a malfunctioning or under-performing instrument can cause the process to shut down entirely, causing time and money lost due to down time.

How LIMS Ensures Regulatory Compliance

Biofuels facilities must comply with a wide range of regulations and standards, and demonstrating that compliance requires meticulous recordkeeping. What’s more, regulatory oversight is likely to increase as biofuels processes that rely on synthetic biology become more commonplace. A LIMS eases compliance by storing all the data it collects and organizing it into exportable reports. ASTM D7682, “Specification for Butanol for Blending with Gasoline for Use as Automotive Spark–Ignition Engine Fuel,” is just one standard of note in the industry. It dictates test methods and performance requirements for mixing butanol with gasoline.

Relevant parameters monitored include butanol and water content, acidity, inorganic chloride, solvent–washed gum, sulfur content and total sulfate — Monitoring all these parameters requires a whole suite of analytical instruments. By integrating all these instruments with the LIMS, a facility can easily turn the mountain of data generated into useable information, dashboards for management or an automatically compiled compliance report. The modern LIMS is also capable of managing environmental sampling programs, scheduling the regular collection and processing of samples and monitoring effluent discharges to ensure that any modified organisms are not allowed to impact the local ecology.

Keep Moving

The biofuels industry is subject to constant innovation, resulting in both disruption and opportunity. The LIMS plays an important role in helping producers achieve long–term performance and profitability because it minimizes process disruption and optimizes the use of precious manufactured organicisms. With new microorganisms and processes under development, the industry is in constant flux, but a flexible and extensible laboratory, enabled by a LIMS, is the best way to ensure a profitable future in modern biofuels.

* The author is Project Director at Thermo Fisher Scientific