We've made it through the first three sections of the equipment operated by renewable oil manufacturer Solazyme (NASDAQ:TVIA) at its first commercial scale facility in Moema, Brazil. In the first part of this series investors learned the importance of the supporting infrastructure at Moema including utilities, cleaning equipment, and distributed control systems. Then we turned our attention to upstream components, such as micro and quality control labs, which support the operation of seed trains and production bioreactors discussed in part three. Today, we'll dive into the final grouping of equipment at Moema: recovery. What good is making renewable oils if you cannot extract them from the microalgae cells?
Rollin', rollin', rollin'
Product recovery isn't created equally across all industrial biotechnology platforms. Many utilize engineered yeast and E. coli that excrete products into the fermentation medium of the bioreactor, which must then be separated out from a mixture of unused nutrients, cell debris, and other liquids and solids with a series of centrifuges. When the recovery of excreted products isn't optimized, it has the potential to reduce the yield and economics of the platform. This proved to be a major problem early on for one pioneering synthetic biology company and remains a looming problem for another.
By comparison, Solazyme has a relatively easy recovery step since its microalgae produce tailored oil profiles within their cell walls. In other words, the company can reduce the complexity of the recovery step by first separating cells from the fermentation broth (lots of other stuff to sift through), then extracting oils from the cell walls (reduced to two major components: cell debris and oils).
The final extraction step occurs with standard equipment borrowed from the oilseed industry. Algal cells are sent through a roller or press, which squeezes out the oils locked with the microalgae. Solazyme ends up with "sheets" of tailored oils and cell debris that can be dried and processed into briquettes for use in plastics, papers, and films. Judging by my visit to the pilot facility in May, investors should expect the company to announce commercial uses for these margin-boosting waste streams once its two commercial scale facilities begin the final ramp to steady-state operations.
Of course, not all renewable algal oils need to go through the final recovery step. A growing number of oil profiles within the Encapso portfolio, such as its lubricant for oil field services, and food products with the AlgaVia portfolio, such as Whole Algal Flour and Whole Algal Protein, are more valuable when encapsulated within the cell walls of microalgae. Advantages are derived from transportation, targeted utilization, texture, storage, and more. Skipping the recovery step is a key reason Encapso and AlgaVia products support two of the three highest margin profiles for Solazyme.
Foolish bottom line
My hope is that this series helps Solazyme investors better understand the complexity and importance of commercial-scale equipment. It should help paint a clearer picture for any past delays, future expected hiccups during ramp-up, capacity expansion, and future improvements that boost operating efficiency or slash timelines. The first update from Moema will arrive on July 30 as management provides first quarter results. Check back as we dig through the details and discuss the importance of the information that's disclosed.
Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, CAPS page, previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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