Biotechnology, Using Microorganisms to Produce Molecules

Close-up of glass vials filled with a clear liquid

Some molecules and fuels — bioethanol, for example — are produced by converting biomass using microorganisms. To meet the challenges of diversifying the molecules and improving efficiency, Total is investing in biotechnology R&D programs.

In 1992, Total started using ethanol to produce ethyl tertiary butyl ether, or ETBE, a gasoline additive that improves a fuel’s octane rating. Ethanol is produced by utilizing yeast strains to ferment biomass feedstocks like beet sugar, cane sugar or cereal starch hydrolysates.

Diversifying Sugar Resources to Avoid Competing with Food Crops

We are developing new fermentation processes that meet certain strategic criteria:

  • They must not compete directly with food crops.
  • They must generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Cultivation and operational practices must accord with our ethical values and principles.
  • They must be viable for commercial scale-up.
  • They must provide a reasonable return on investment.

We are involved in a number of R&D projects to more effectively use the entire plant, which contains more than one source of sugar:

  • Stored sugar, from sugar cane, sugar beets, cereal starch and other sources.
  • Cell wall sugar, such as lignocellulosic sugar.

Our new projects aim to avoid competing with food crops by using plant cell sugars collected from farming and forest waste by a process known as deconstruction. Once collected, these sugars will be used to produce molecules of interest.

In addition, some molecules produced by fermentation can be processed to prepare the end product. These finishing stages require expertise in refining and chemical engineering, Total’s core businesses.

Because cell wall sugar is more complex to collect than stored sugar, the process is not economically viable with current technology. Further innovation will be decisive in overcoming the technological hurdles to commercial production.

A Strong Presence in Biotechnology R&D

Total has forged international partnerships with many university laboratories and private research firms and has also acquired interests in several biotech start-ups. This strategy is an extension of the work carried out with Amyris, which has built a cutting-edge synthetic biology platform to engineer and select microorganisms capable of cost-effectively converting sugars into various molecules of interest. Total has also acquired a stake in U.S.-based Gevo, which is working on converting sugars into isobutanol for fuel and petrochemical applications.

A contributor to the Enerbio research fund alongside Axens, Diester Industrie and Renault, Total is working with French national research agency ANR on a comparative analysis of around 20 potential avenues that use various resources and conversion technologies.

Total Invests in Experimental Research

Total participates in biotechnology projects with cutting-edge laboratories like the Joint BioEnergy  Institute (JBEI) in the United States and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and is a founding member of Toulouse White Biotech, a pre-commercial biotechnology demonstrator based in France. These and other partnerships enable us to respond proactively to advances in biotechnology and identify the innovations of the future.