Low Cost Biofuels: Can Companies Use Lab Informatics to Make Them a Reality?

Lab Informatics, Petrochemicals

How can oil and gas firms use lab informatics to make biofuels a viable reality?
How can oil and gas firms use lab informatics to make biofuels a viable reality?
Image source: Flickr CC user Robert Couse-Baker

Dropping oil prices may offer relief to consumers’ wallets, but they impact many other areas of the petroleum industry. Companies have decreased the number of oil rigs they have in operation. Firms are laying off thousands of employees. To say that uncertainty permeates the field is an understatement.

The price decrease has also affected another area: research innovation. The amount of funding that has gone into biofuel research has decreased.1 This is a change from previous years in which oil and gas companies invested millions of dollars in green fuel technology. One of the benefits of advanced biofuels is that they can decrease greenhouse emissions by at least 60%.2 Since biofuels are converted from low-value waste products, they’re also not dependent on finite resources.

Biofuel Research Diversifies as a Result of Market Pressures

This doesn’t mean biofuel research has come to a complete halt. Companies have begun looking into other potential uses. It doesn’t have to be a direct gasoline alternative, after all. For example, some firms are finding ways to replace petroleum-based chemicals in manufacturing with biofuel products. This covers a wide range of areas such as clothing, plastic and even everyday supplies like tape.

One of the biggest hurdles facing biofuel adoption is that producing it isn’t easy. The biomass that serves as the basis for biofuels generally yields poor fuel stability, less than ideal viscosity, and energy inefficiency. As a result, optimizing biofuel production requires lots of dollars that trickle down to consumers, making it a nonviable alternative to petroleum-based products.

However, that might change soon. Scientists recently genetically engineered a microbe able to produce isobutanol from cellulose. Their efforts build upon previous research and actually improve isobutanol yield by a factor of 10.3 Even better, the isobutanol has similar energy density and octane values to gasoline. Have we finally found a direct alternative energy replacement for gas? Best of all, it can be also used for derivative subproducts like jet fuel. That’s a great sign since diversification seems to be the key to surviving the current volatile market.

Lab Informatics Can Support Biofuel Research Conducted by Oil and Gas Companies

The genetically engineered microbe also brings another advantage. It consolidates multiple steps by bundling several bioprocesses in a single microbe. That means it extracts sugar from cellulose and also converts it to biofuel, rather than using two separate microbes to do the job. As a result, this lowers costs. Good news all-around, right?

Minimizing costs is crucial in this uncertain oil and gas market. How can companies innovate and come up with new advances if they remain worried about their bottom line? That’s where lab informatics comes in.

Lab informatics allows companies to streamline their R&D efforts, thereby increasing the pace of innovation. By using such a system, firms can plan and design their experiments, manage their workflow and analyze results more effectively. Of particular interest is how lab informatics lets users mine experimental data. Think of the microbe genetically engineered to produce isobutanol. Wouldn’t it have been ideal for the research team to have the ability to search through the previous experimental iterations? Being able to search through existing knowledge fuels innovation because it gives access to all of the information at hand, minimizing duplicate experiments and instead encouraging ones that build upon past work.

Is your oil and gas firm interested in biofuel research and its various application beyond direct gasoline replacements? Contact us today to learn more about BIOVIA Experiment Knowledge Base, a lab informatics system able to integrate with your existing infrastructure and improve your experimental management and collaboration.

  1. “WSU biofuel project has new benefit after oil prices drop,” September 17, 2015, http://www.king5.com/story/tech/science/environment/2015/09/17/wsu-biofuel-research-benefits/32554629/
  2. “Huge investment into biofuel research,” September 16, 2015, http://www.primemovermag.com.au/news/article/huge-investment-in-biofuel-research
  3. “Scientists Design Microbe That Helps In Biofuel Production,” August 17, 2015, http://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/7117/20150817/scientists-design-microbe-that-helps-in-biofuel-production.htm

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