In the process of making biofuel, crops have to first be disintegrated into sugars, which is often a puzzling step, since it requires a lot of time and is not always efficient. Agrivida, a company located near Boston, is experimenting how to reverse engineer plants so they simply self-destruct into simpler elements quicker and better, to yield cheaper and more biofuel.
With a $6.8 million grant from the USDA and the ARPA-E program, Agrivida has already tested over two million enzymes to find the ones responsible for the rapid breakdown of cellulose, which sits at the very structure of the plant, giving it resistance.
The company wants to insert the enzymes inside normal sorghum, switchgrass and corn stover, and then trigger them by exposing the plants to high temperatures. “Plants make the enzymes to chop up the cellulose but they are in a dormant form. Then we activate (the enzymes) by heating them to high temperatures,” said Mark Wong, Agrivida CEO.
The significant number of enzymes they have been testing is due to an automation they set up in their lab, which sorts thousands of enzymes and monitor their growth in assay plates. Each one of those plates can hold dozens of colonies in a single tray. After the initial testing, they inject the enzymes inside bacteria which can be finally injected into plants for final tests. Not all of the enzymes reach the final testing stage. Out of the 600,000 tested in a year, only 10 reach that point.
Some of their tests have revealed that sorghum and switchgrass can produce up to 50 percent more sugar with this method than with traditional ones, which translates into faster and more efficient biofuel production.
Agrivida’s technology will probably see the market four to six years from now, since it has to undergo USDA approvals. A sign that the government is actively supporting this kind of research is that Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has visited Agrivida last week.