Saturday, August 02, 2008

Next Level Biofuels: Beyond Ethanol and Methanol

Four next level biofuels companies are featured in the current issue of Biomass Mag:
  1. LS9
  2. Gevo
  3. Amyris Biotech
  4. Synthetic Genomics
Fatty acids are molecularly similar to hydrocarbons, which are the building blocks of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, Pal says. By re-engineering the genetic coding of e.coli and yeast, LS9 creates a miniature assembly line (metabolic pathway) to synthesize the biofuel.

Genes missing from the microbes and required to produce intermediate substances and enzymes (which produce biochemical reactions) are inserted into the organisms. Genes producing unwanted substances or diverting energy from the biofuel production process are silenced....LS9’s goal is to create fuel that is cost competitive with oil at $40 to $50 per barrel, Pal says. A small-scale pilot facility, planned for this year, will generate the performance and economic data to support investment in a large-scale commercial facility. Pal expects to have a product to market in three to four years.

Gevo, founded in 2005, initially focused on redesigning the metabolic processes of microbes to convert waste methane gas into methanol....[But] Butanol contains more energy than methanol or ethanol, it can be blended with gasoline without retrofitting engines and it can be distributed in existing pipelines. It is also used as a chemical intermediate, creating numerous market opportunities, Gruber says.

Most efforts to ferment sugars into butanol rely upon bacteria, Clostridium acetobutylicum. But even with genetic modification, the bacterium doesn’t produce enough butanol to be economically viable...Gevo’s approach is to concentrate on organisms, such as e.coli and yeasts, that serve as outstanding platforms for biofuel production, explains Matthew Peters, Gevo vice president and chief scientific officer.

The company recently licensed technology from James Liao, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, which re-engineers e.coli to make butanol. Liao rewired e.coli’s genetic circuitry by adding genes to convert keto acids, produced during metabolism, into butanol...Liao removed genes producing nonessential substances and enhanced the productivity of others. These modifications increased keto acid production, boosting butanol production.

Gevo’s goal is to produce fuel at an unsubsidized price that is less than gasoline, says Tom Dries, vice president of business development. To keep costs down, the company will retrofit existing ethanol plants to run its processes, at a cost of about $20 million per facility. Dries expects to produce its first product sometime in 2009.

The Amyris team is using computation tools to identify the suites of genes to assemble within an organism to produce its biofuels, along with tools to optimize the genes for use in the system. “Dozens of genes are affected, inserted and changed in the process,” Reiling says.

The company is initially focusing its efforts on commercializing its diesel product. “Diesel is growing at two to three times the rate of gasoline,” Melo says. “There is not a scaleable renewable fuel today servicing the diesel market.”...the company is working on increasing the productivity of its process to reach parity with oil at $55 to $60 per barrel.

...Amyris is forming partnerships...In April, Amyris announced a joint venture with Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol producers, to commercialize its diesel technology in Brazil. Crystalsev will provide 2 million tons of sugarcane crushing capacity and will convert two of its ethanol plants to produce Amyris’ renewable diesel from cane juice, Melo explains. Production is slated to begin by 2010.

At Synthetic Genomics, research efforts are also focused on creating all the genetic material for an organism (its genome) from scratch (de novo), tailored to biofuel production. “Most of these organisms have other priorities in life producing substances for their own particular needs,” explains Ari Patrinos, the company’s president. “There is a limit to how much you can tweak them to do what you want.”

“If you can design the genome de novo, you only include those processes and activities of interest to you,” Patrinos says. As a result, the biological processes will be more efficient and productive and include built in tolerances.

....“Once you have demonstrated that you can do the genome, you can add the appropriate promoters that turn on and off genes,” Patrinos says. He envisions inserting sets of genes into the genome, observing the outcomes and then optimizing the final combination of genes that produces the best product at the highest efficiencies.

Patrinos believes Synthetic Genomes will begin producing biofuels in the next few years. “I think we have a leg up on scaling up because the organisms can be tailored for the scaling process.”
Pay attention to the time targets these companies are shooting for. Within 5 years or less. If any of them succeed with large scale production of oil-equivalent under $60 a barrel, the economics of liquid fuels will be overturned overnight. Even well funded biomass to ethanol companies will be pressed to achieve significant scale production with competitive priced product in that time frame. Biomass to liquid fuels will be a huge industry, once it scales up and shakes out. And it will have a lot of two bit oil dictators to thank--for keeping oil prices artificially high long enough for the new bio-fuels to become cost-competitive.

Of course, if massive social and economic unrest occurs in the US due to artificially high oil prices, US taxpayers and Oynklent Green [OTC:OYNK] will know exactly who to thank closer to home. Nancy and Barbara would likely be the first to receive callers, unless Barry becomes an even greater symbol for energy luddism by that time.

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