The Technology

The TMO Process

The particular nature of TMO’s thermophilic organism lends itself to a significantly different process for the production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass. The conventional method, as used widely in the ethanol from corn industry, is little changed from the ancient traditions of brewing: a feedstock is broken down, by pre-treatment methods involving the application of enzymes, into a simple sugar such as glucose and then subjected to a yeast-based fermentation which takes a number of days to complete. This process is energy-intensive since the material requires significant cooling from the high temperature of the pre-treatment process to the low temperature of the fermentation, and then re-heating for the subsequent distillation process.

This traditional approach remains uneconomical when used to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass because of the costs and time involved in preparing and pre-treating the feedstock, the energy consumed and the capital costs involved in using exotic metallurgy to build large batch reactors.

By contrast, the TMO process exploits two innate properties of the unique organism to deliver a process for the highly efficient production of ethanol from a wide range of cellulose-rich biomass feedstocks.

Firstly, by exploiting the high temperature that the organism favours, fermentation can be performed at temperatures in excess of sixty degrees Celsius. This brings a number of benefits. 

First: Since very little cooling or heating is required, there is a significant saving in energy. The heat-loving thermophile grows and produces ethanol very rapidly, it is able to maintain itself at this higher temperature and the resulting intermediate product (the beer) passes on to the purification steps without the need for any additional input of energy.

Second: the organism has a preference for consuming the longer chain sugars that derive from the breakup of biomass. This brings a very significant benefit in that a very large portion of the work and cost required to break down biomass to simple sugars, such as glucose, is removed: the TMO fermentation process simply makes ethanol from a starting point ‘farther up the chain’.

The combination of this appetite for complex sugars, the speed at which the organism works and the temperature of the process, sponsors a more cost effective process. By changing the starting point for the fermentation of ethanol, the methods of feedstock preparation, pre-treatment and sugar release are all simplified to a point where a whole process becomes economically viable.

The speed of the fermentation is rapid so vessels reduce in size, driving down capital costs. In fact, almost all of the components at our Demonstration Plant are ‘off-the-shelf’ items of equipment, common in many chemical processes.

The pre-treatment conditions are less severe than is required by the conventional route to ethanol from cellulose and so the materials of construction are significantly cheaper. This whole process is exactly what TMO is demonstrating at its Process Demonstration Unit (PDU) in Surrey, UK.


Methodology   Demonstration Unit