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Developing an Efficient Cyanobacteria Sugar Production System

Company Name: HelioBioSys, Inc.
Program Office: Bioenergy
Location: Woodside, CA
Email: David Smernoff, Founder & CTO;
Award Amount: $200,000
Project Term: 12 months
Project Status: Active
Participating Lab(s): Sandia National Laboratories/ Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


The vast majority of U.S. biofuels and petroleum alternatives are produced from corn and other food crops, which can have a mixed impact on the environment. Developing alternative products from algae and other non-food feedstocks could provide another avenue for developing sustainable alternatives to petroleum.

HelioBioSys uses a consortium of unmodified cyanobacteria to convert sunlight into a complex mixture of sugars, which can then be synthesized into a number of products, including fuels. The company's main challenge is demonstrating culture stability and productivity — that is to say, higher sugar yields — at scale using industry standard growth systems. Other technical challenges in commercializing this technology include detailed analysis of sugar processing steps, including biomass separation, salt removal, and hydrolysis, as well as fermentation suitability at greater scale, and to refine methods for the direct chemical conversion of cyanobacterial biomass and polysaccharides to bioplastics.

Through the SBV pilot, HelioBioSys will utilize indoor growth facilities and expertise at Sandia National Laboratories to explore conditions required to reliably produce fermentable sugars. The company will also have access to expertise and facilities at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to refine processing requirements for converting mixed sugars to fuels. Techno-economic analysis of the entire process will provide the required data to evaluate the economic competitiveness of the company's unique sugar production process.


HelioBioSys has developed a cost-effective, competitive process to produce and process sugar feedstock. By optimizing culture conditions and evaluating technical and economic drivers from photons to fuel, the company can demonstrate a competitive sugar production system capable of providing the low cost, sustainably-derived sugars required by the biofuel and bioproduct market. Because traditional sugar mills produce wastewater, emissions, and solid waste that can negatively impact the environment, HelioBioSys' application differentiates it from others in the market. Moving from indoor cultivation experience to outdoor growth systems, HelioBioSys aims to pioneer new ways of cultivating sugars, utilizing non-genetically modified organisms, short microbial generation times, high sugar yields, an internal nitrogen cycle, and a stable community structure that can be managed in a cost-effective outdoor system.


U.S. reliance on petroleum ties major portions of the economy to volatile global oil markets. Developing alternative fuels produced domestically can help insulate consumers and businesses against price spikes. Further, developing fuels that do not rely on food stocks such as corn can help reduce price pressure on related commodity markets.

Biofuels produced through feedstocks such as cyanobacteria may be capable of capturing as much carbon dioxide as they emit when burned, leading to fuel sources that do not contribute to global climate change.

The U.S. Navy and Pentagon are investing in alternative fuels to bolster U.S. energy independence and ensure greater freedom of movement in operations.

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