Frédéric Monot, Head of the Biotechnology Department at IFPEN
Frédéric Monot : Catalysts are compounds that accelerate a chemical reaction. Biological reactions are catalyzed by enzymes. If we want to produce a series of several different biological reactions, whole cells can be used and, in particular, microorganisms. So the term biocatalyst covers both enzymes and microorganisms.
The interest of bioconversion compared to conventional organic synthesis lies in the use of processes that are often more selective and less polluting (gentle conditions, limited use of organic solvents). For example, in the production of 2nd-generation ethanol fuel from lignocellulosic biomass, biocatalysts are used in the form of enzymes (cellulases) to convert cellulose into glucose, and in the form of yeasts to convert this sugar into ethanol.
F. M. : One of the major challenges in 2nd-generation ethanol production processes is the need to improve the performance of biocatalysts, both in terms of the cellulases themselves and the microorganisms producing them. To do this, in addition to our microbiology expertise, we also draw on our expertise in the fields of molecular biology and genetics to improve the performance of our biocatalysts in terms of activity and stability. Fermentation methods also play a role in the optimization of microorganism “cultivation” in industrial conditions, along with chemical engineering expertise for scaling-up.
F. M. : Our earliest research aimed at developing an enzymatic production process and selecting microorganisms dates back to the 1980s, when IFPEN began to focus its attention on 2nd-generation biofuels. So our expertise is not recent. At the time, we had selected a Trichoderma reesei strain, a filamentous fungus that produces large quantities of cellulases.
Today, we have fully mastered genetic improvement methods and are rapidly improving our understanding of the physiology of this fungus, thanks to a global systemic biology approach. But over and above this knowledge, the specific characteristic of our R&D resides in an approach that incorporates process-related criteria right from the very first selection/ improvement steps. Another aspect that sets us apart is our multidisciplinary approach, combining, in the present case, IFPEN’s expertise in process engineering, applied mathematics and modeling.
F. M. : As part of the European Nile project, coordinated by IFPEN and completed in 2010, we explored original processes to improve cellulases and yeasts.
In the Futurol project, which aims to bring to market an industrial process for the production of cellulosic ethanol by 2016, we are working on the stage for the conversion of cellulose into glucose and, more specifically, on increasing the production of enzymes by microorganisms and optimization of their use.
We are also developing biocatalysts for the conversion of biomass into chemical intermediates.
Biocatalysed-production of fuel ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass: