Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Hycagen's Biofuel Press Release

Hycagen combine skills in chemistry and microbial/enzyme science to design optimal alternative biofuels. The chemical and physical properties needed of a fuel are considered first, and then a biotechnology approach is identified to provide it economically from a renewable carbon feedstock. Similarly, biotechnology processes to chemical industry intermediates are being developed utilising sustainable feedstocks instead of petroleum supplies. _Babraham

Cambridge, UK, biofuels company Hycagen issued a press release (PDF) which provides almost no information at all. The company's website likewise provides almost no information in the description of its biofuels technology. What is going on?

Here is a newstory based on the press release:
Hycagen was founded in 2008 and has developed a number of fuels using its proprietary enzyme and catalyst based processes. Hycadiesel is an improved biodiesel composition that utilises both triglyceride and carbohydrate derived feedstocks.

It has improved low-temperature properties compared with conventional biodiesel (fatty acid methyl esters), yet the process for its manufacture is extremely simple, the company says.

A hyper-stabilised reusable enzyme catalyst assimilates the combined feedstocks into the Hycadiesel generating no waste. The only processing step required after the reaction is filtration of the catalyst.

The Hycagen solution therefore completely circumvents the issues of glycerol waste, use of caustic alkali, the recycling of methanol and the product wash steps needed with the conventional biodiesel process.

“Our first stage testing at a variety of concentrations up to 100 per cent shows that the fuel performs exactly as predicted,” said Telgenco CEO Simon Albury.

“Biofuel is a key part of Telgenco's long term renewables strategy and the Hycagen product addresses some of the problems with traditional biodiesel, which means it could be used as a viable drop-in replacement for conventional diesel. Our long term testing will be concluded early next year.”

Hycagen CEO Dr Alan D Roth added: “We have developed Hycadiesel specifically to offer an engineered biofuel with enhanced properties to address a range of markets including the fixed power one.” _BusinessWeekly
Do you see what I mean? There is almost no information about the underlying process, and very little information on the nature of the feedstock is provided.

And yet, the backstory behind Hycagen is too intriguing to assume that the empty press release is just a smokescreen covering up not much at all.

Hycagen was founded in 2008 by some pretty sharp scientists: Drs. Brian Adger, Steve Taylor and Ray McCague, highly proficient in a number of chemical, biological, and pharmacological areas.

The trio founded Chiroscience plc in 1997, which in its current form (after mergers etc) is market capitalised well into the billion pound range. They also founded Sepagen Ltd in 2008. Sepagen's core technology expertise is in separation science, particulary in crystallisation and biocatalysis methods for obtaining highly pure molecules for the life sciences.

What does all of this have to do with biofuels? Most of it has nothing to do with biofuels -- as they are traditionally made. But that is what makes the recent "information-free" press release so interesting. Hycagen already has a customer / partner -- Cambridge based manufacturer of electrical generators, Telgenco. And Telgenco has tested Hycagen's brave new biodiesel and declared it "exactly as predicted."

More on hycagen from another website:
Hycagen is an R&D company, developing superior fuel compositions and renewable chemicals based on a combination of microbial and chemical synthesis. In the fuels area the fuel is first designed then routes for synthesis are considered based on the required properties.

...The new product could replace existing biodiesel with a superior fuel and thus broaden the scope of its application, in particular at low temperatues. As the process is simpler the fuel could be produced more cheaply. It could be produced either locally on-farm using low-tech methods allowing farmers to become self sufficient or at centralised facilities. _Techinspired

Can you believe that last sentence, farmers? This superior biodiesel could supposedly be produced locally on-farm for fuel self-sufficiency. And no problems with low temperature operations, either.

There is just enough information around suggesting that Hycagen utilises synthetic biological methods to create microbial enzymes which help in creating at least some of the fuels they are developing. Steve Taylor has experience in synthetic biology, and at least one consulting scientist for the company has a strong background in recombinant bacterial enzyme expression.

So what we have in Hycagen are some successful scientist/entrepreneurs in the fields of chemistry, biotechnology, and pharmacology who have been around the block a few times, have an established customer : partner relationship for their product, and are holding their process information rather close to the vest.

Al Fin bioenergy analysts are looking into the situation more closely, but are all agreed that Hycagen is worth watching.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Benjamin said...

Or, some smart guys have decided to raise venture capital and cash out.

10:54 AM  
Blogger al fin said...

Possibly.

There exists a great deal of potential for clever approaches to bioenergy from biomass.

The planet is more prolific biologically than most people understand, and could be several multiples more prolific than at present, if we can be clever monkeys.

12:54 PM  

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