By Anthony Clark | The Gainesville Sun
In a lab in the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center on Hawthorne Road, a Gainesville company is developing what it says is the key to ending our nation's dependence on foreign oil.
BioTork is developing microorganisms that convert biomass such as agricultural waste and solid waste to oils that can be refined to make fuels and industrial chemicals.
The company announced last month that it had been hired by BASF — the world's largest chemical company — to improve microbial strains used to produce polymers and green chemicals.
With that, BioTork started getting more calls from companies interested in what they can do. “This really is a validation of the need for our technology,” said Tom Lyons, chief science officer.
The technology was invented by founder and CEO Eudes de Crecy in his garage. He developed a way to evolve microorganisms that convert biomass for maximum production by gradually changing the environment to industrial-scale conditions.
“We're speeding up the process of natural evolution,” Lyons said.
BioTork is one of several companies led by de Crecy and Lyons — the public face of the operation — with Evolugate as the research and development company for the others. Entovia makes bioinsecticides and Valendis makes organisms that clean up oil spills, toxic waste or solid waste.
BioTork is the furthest along with its own employees and its own customers. Lyons said the company has 10 to 15 employees, depending on whether you count consultants, and guesses they could add 15 more with one or two more contracts like the one with BASF.
The company has several other projects in the works. It is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Hawaii to convert papaya culled by farmers and packing houses into oil. The National Corn to Ethanol Research Center hired BioTork to make ethanol from the fiber left over when starch is removed to make ethanol.
The company is working with the biodiesel industry to develop an algae that grows on waste glycerol left over from biodiesel production to make oil. They are also in talks with about a half dozen biotech companies that make fuel or specialty chemicals.
Lyons said BioTork's method for producing oil has numerous advantages as an alternative to fossil fuels.
By prodding the evolutionary process, they can create robust microorganisms in three months to two years that would take more years and cost a lot more through genetic engineering. And BioTork can do so with more certainty of success, Lyons said.
By creating microbes that directly convert biomass to lipids, the process is a lot less costly than current methods that require pretreating the biomass, adding enzymes and detoxifying the resulting soup.
Alternatives such as solar, hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol and butanol would require a new fuel infrastructure costing trillions of dollars and would still not produce the high-energy, high-density liquid fuels needed for commercial jets, trucks, trains, ships and the military, Lyons said.
The alternative renewable technologies also cannot make plastic.
“Even if you got rid of all of the transportation uses of petroleum, we'd still be addicted to oil,” Lyons said. “Lipids are part of the solution to get us off of petroleum entirely.”
Rather than using one source of feedstock such as corn that would be grown just for that purpose, he said they can make oil from numerous existing sources of waste. Small oil production facilities could be built close to the sources and the oil shipped to refineries more economically than shipping biomass.
“If you ship biomass beyond 50 miles you're using more energy than you're getting out of it,” Lyons said.
De Crecy and his wife, Valerie de Crecy-Lagard, worked on a similar technology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. After they moved to San Diego, Eudes de Crecy solved the problem of evolving microorganisms at home. They moved to Gainesville when de Crecy-Lagard took a position as an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Florida.
Eudes de Crecy started Evolugate in 2005 and BioTork in 2008. Lyons, who worked with de Crecy-Lagard as a professor of biochemistry, was at their house for dinner.
“I'd had enough of academia,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, do you have a job?' ”
At the end of 2008, the company received a large private investment and brought Lyons on board as chief science officer.