Testing catalysts in flow – the EnginZyme approach

EnginZyme’s grand goal is to reduce the chemical industry’s environmental impact by making it easier and more cost-effective for companies to use enzymes to create new products, reduce waste streams, or otherwise make their operations more efficient. One factor that has prevented the widespread adoption of enzymes in the chemical industry is their operational lifetime, which has typically been too short to bring the catalyst cost contribution within techno-economic analysis targets.

Our core technology EziG™, together with other strategies, aims to improve the expected enzyme lifetime by immobilising enzymes on porous supports, allowing us to re-use these enzymes many times. By engineering ever more stable enzymes, fine-tuning immobilisation parameters, and optimising process conditions, we can extend the catalyst’s on-stream lifetime from hours to weeks or even months. Moreover, our platform works for all enzyme types, eases downstream processing of target reaction products, and eliminates several common issues with enzyme immobilisation, such as diminished activity retention.

Before our industry partners can introduce an EziG-based process to their production lines, we must successfully showcase the results of a pilot run with the same processing infrastructure. Running a pilot is very expensive and labour-intensive, so at EnginZyme, we do our best to reduce the uncertainty and ensure that both the catalyst and the process fulfil the specifications our process engineering team set before the pilot run.

We needed experimental rigs to evaluate the target reaction performance in flow, but most vendors wouldn’t be interested in providing compact and simplified versions of industrial-grade machines. So we built our own family of packed bed reactor systems: the EziFlow. These reactors are sufficiently large to represent a fully scaled-up system but still practical to run in a lab environment.

EziFlow: flow chemistry made easy

A typical EziFlow system has multiple independent channels, enabling our scientists to assess the stability of several catalysts or the effect of different conditions on a single catalyst simultaneously and over extended periods. Although similar commercial reactors do exist and have been evaluated for our applications,  EziFlow is the most customisable, flexible, and cost-effective solution for our needs with native integration into our  Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS).

Our EziFlow reactors allow us to achieve two main tasks. First, we can assess the stability and reproducibility of catalyst performance over extended periods under target process conditions. Second, we can map the reaction kinetics of the system over a range of conditions, such as temperature and feedstock composition. Moreover, we can change parameters, such as flow rate, and monitor the performance impact of the packed bed. Or we can stack packed beds in series and sample the reaction mixture as it passes from bed to bed, allowing us to follow the reaction profile over the bed. With this information, our process engineering team can make changes to the system’s design and improve the process before piloting, mitigating the risks of scaling up.

Tailored to our specific needs

Building our EziFlow reactors is not only cost-efficient but also reduces the commissioning time of a flow rig setup. We do not need to optimise for a general-purpose setup. Instead, we rapidly introduce design changes and replace the components to optimise temperature, chemical, or mechanical compatibility.

More importantly, because we can optimise our designs to our available footprint, our systems can make the most out of the lab space available. EnginZyme is a fast-growing startup, and the time, effort and disruption involved in expanding lab space can introduce significant risks to our ability to grow at a steady and sustainable pace. Any approach that eases the conflict between how fast we can grow and how often we need to expand our labs has a massive benefit in keeping our company as a lean, agile, and reliable long-term partner.

Automated and seamlessly integrated into our LIMS system

A microcontroller commands the EziFlow sensors and actuators with custom-built firmware designed with a modular and extensible architecture:  new components can be integrated, or existing ones can be replaced. For example,  the multichannel reactor systems are integrated with robotic autosamplers to automatically collect samples according to carefully orchestrated schedules. Beyond the essential labour-saving aspect, the control system and autosampler openly import and export data to facilitate integration with our LIMS. This allows us to reliably connect the control system’s timestamped sampling data and process conditions with compositional data from our analytical processes, improving our data collection’s reliability and accuracy and freeing researchers to perform more valuable work.

The future of flow chemistry

The EziFlow reactors have helped us to bridge the knowledge gap between an experiment run in a liquid handling robot and the optimal conditions needed for a pilot run. During this development process, we took foundational steps in consolidating an in-house engineering team focused on designing, constructing and operating more fully functional process systems.

So far, this has been a successful journey, and our scientists are confident that we can gather more and better information before we commit to a pilot run with an external partner. Operating even a small reactor over an extended period can generate sufficient material to allow a thorough in-house optimisation of downstream processes before piloting.

Ultimately, our ability to rapidly deliver breakthrough technology depends on the tools we have available to us. By bringing this core competence in-house, we ensure that every stage in our innovation pipeline achieves the same high automation, responsiveness, and scalability standards.

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