Enzymes are crucial to life, triggering natural reactions that take place in our bodies and in nature. These natural catalysts however are not always suited to extreme industrial conditions, which often involve high temperatures. As result, many industrial sectors have relied on chemicals that contribute towards pollution and waste. Finnish firm MetGen has sought to address this by developing genetically modified enzymes that can operate in industrial conditions. MetZymes are patented enzyme solutions capable of addressing lignocellulosic biomass – inedible plant matter – even breaking it down to its constituent molecules. From lab to industry ‘It’s one thing to invent new enzymes but it’s another to be able to use them in solving specific industrial challenges at the largest scale,’ explains APEX project coordinator Matti Heikkilä, chief technology officer of MetGen. ‘This requires demonstrations at the hundreds of tonnes scale, which is a serious issue for a small company like ours.’ The key objective of the EU-funded APEX project, which was completed in March 2017, was therefore to take MetGen’s production and supply chain capabilities up to the next level. ‘Scaling up allows for market demonstrations to be carried out in industrial-scale trials, which in our business is mandatory,’ says Heikkilä. This was achieved through improving existing processes and refining a technology platform that provides a focused path for developing tailored solutions to customers. This means that the pulp and paper industry for example can discuss their needs and then see how the enzymes might work in practice, finishing up with a final product of paper or card. ‘This provides focus and enables us to work on customer specific challenges,’ explains Heikkilä. ‘The process has become so standardised that we can bring new enzymes from idea to industrial scale in less than six months.’ Tapping market potential As well as paper, high performance enzymes capable of breaking down lignocellulosic biomass have a range of other industrial applications. The chemical sector for example is increasingly interested in renewable chemicals and materials to complement – or replace – their current portfolio in a bid to reduce their environmental footprint. Large-scale industrial processes also often require waste water treatment, and natural enzyme solutions could help achieve efficiencies here and reduce pollution. The ability of certain enzymes to break down lignocellulosic biomass in water soluble conditions could also enable biorefineries to extract even more value. ‘We’ve developed enzymes that enable converting lignocellulosic biomass sugars into bioplastics, which previously could not be done,’ says Heikkilä. ‘Converting lignocellulosic sugars into platform chemicals could also open up a range of new possibilities. But again, all of this requires demonstrations at a serious scale, and we would not have been able to do this without the APEX project, funding through the 2020 SME Instrument.’ Heikkilä believes that this type of project is an example of what needs to be done to ensure European global competitiveness. ‘Europe has a lot of work to do here,’ he says. ‘Both the US and China are aggressively investing in almost-ready businesses. Europe will fall behind in investments in science, technology, and knowledge unless it is willing to finance innovations all the way.’ For MetGen this kind of support provided a vital funding bridge that enabled the firm to take enzymes from the lab into industry-scale demonstrations.
APEX, genetics, enzymes, biomass, lignocellulosic, pollution, waste, SME, chemicals