A Career Using Microbes to Produce Biofuels

Sept. 2, 2020

The biofuel industry takes biomass, a waste byproduct from agricultural and industry sectors, and turns it into fossil fuels. Microorganisms have been harnessed to produce biofuels like bioethanol, biodiesel and methane. The economic challenges of making biofuels from agricultural biomass and the scaling up of production have been bottlenecks in the industry. Mr. Dave Bushong, Vice President of Research at POET, has successfully built a biofuel production program.

POET is the world’s largest producer of ethanol and other biorefined products. The production capacity of POET is around 2 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Mr. Bushong was instrumental in the launch of Project LIBERTY, a POET-Dutch Multinational Corporation (DSM) Advanced Biofuels’ commercial-scale biofuel facility, which opened in 2014 in Emmetsburg, Iowa. As an engineer, he has been instrumental in using engineering approaches to develop microbial products for practical use. The significance of having a multidisciplinary skill-set to translate innovative ideas into large-scale production and commercialization is very apparent in this interview.

How did you realize that you could harness microorganisms for biofuel applications?

The advances in microbiology in the last several years have outpaced many other technologies. As a chemical engineer, I realized that developing a microbial process based on chemical engineering principles would help enhance yield, as well as aid in scaling up the process to meet industrial needs. The use of CRISPR genetic modification technology in recent years has increased the pace of innovation and further reduced the cost. Improvements in microorganisms can occur rapidly, to the point where other processes, like engineering modifications, are now the bottleneck. A challenge in cellulosic ethanol was developing an organism that could efficiently convert 5-carbon and 6-carbon sugars to ethanol. POET engaged in numerous collaborations that resulted in an effective Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast for producing cellulosic ethanol.

What were some of the initial challenges you faced in developing a bioethanol plant?

Bioethanol is a commodity product. The quality of POET’s ethanol is the same as that of ethanol from other companies. The competitive advantage lies in being the low-cost producer. POET has been dedicated to technology differentiation for decades. Our raw-starch hydrolysis process and industry-leading yields are testaments to POET’s commitment to technology. While bioethanol technology from starch is generally well understood, developing a competitive advantage is much more difficult. The technical challenges for cellulosic ethanol are significant. The entire process, from collecting feedstock with minimal soil contamination through pretreatment, fermentation and economical use of co-products, continues to be technically challenging. At the same time, government support for technology development has declined.

Can you discuss the opportunities and challenges for the renewable and non-renewable energy sectors? 

The renewable energy sector is being enabled by advances in microbiology and has almost unlimited possibilities. The non-renewable energy sector, which includes inorganic chemicals and fossil fuels, currently remains important to our economy and way of life, but is in transition. Efforts in the non-renewable energy sector are more focused on limiting the impacts to our environment and on sustainability, while the renewable energy sector is completely focused on innovation.

What chemical engineering skill sets do you think can help microbiologists scale up and produce their products for commercialization?

Commercial success lies in developing unique microbial processes and then being able to extract the value. The back-end process development, which consists of laying the infrastructure for large-scale production of products, can be as challenging as the front-end microbial process. Ideally, the back-end process development can begin in conjunction with the microbiology effort, but that is difficult. Often the product or substrate of interest cannot be obtained in the desired quantities. Therefore, a key skill is to generate data at small scale and extrapolate to a projected process and design.

Can you explain your experiences in developing highly successful bioprocesses for biorefinery applications?

Successful collaborations are critical in developing and commercializing bioprocesses. It is becoming uncommon for one company to have all the necessary technology and ingredients to completely commercialize a new bioprocess. Therefore, developing relationships becomes as important as developing technology.

Your technologies have greatly impacted energy, environment and agriculture. How important is it for engineers/microbiologists to find a career that aligns with their social values? 

I really appreciate the change in focus of technical professionals. Commercial success in conjunction with social values is now the expectation. Companies like POET have been built on improving our standard of living, while also improving our environment and human health.

Can you provide advice on how engineers and entrepreneurs can align their social values with their careers?

Actively seek out and get involved with those projects or companies that align with your own convictions and social values. It is very difficult to be successful working on a project or for a company that you fundamentally do not align with from a mission or culture standpoint.

What advice do you have for microbiology students with regard to having a multidisciplinary skill set to become a successful scientist or entrepreneur or both?

Adding skill sets to your success toolbox is a never-ending endeavor. The skill sets you choose to add depend on your ultimate career goals. The additional tools to be a successful entrepreneur can be different from the skills necessary to be a successful scientist. Of course there is overlap, but there are also fundamental differences. My advice would be to select your path forward, be honest with yourself in assessing your skills and then add or find a way to obtain the skills you need to accomplish your goals. Build on your strengths!

Can you discuss the training/internship opportunities for microbiology students at POET?

POET has a dedicated internship program for which we hire 4 to 6 science-based interns at the Sioux Falls, S.D. laboratory. POET begins looking for interns in September. Look for job postings on our website, www.poet.com.

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.