Sunday, November 16, 2008

Synthetic Biology and Biofuels: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

The best time to work on alternatives to fossil fuels is while fuel prices are temporarily low. Better prepare now, because when those prices start rising again it may be too late to block another energy-recession.

Synthetic biology is in its early bloom. Soon, it will begin offering a greater abundance of products such as fuels, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other things unimaginable now. Unless the ever-lurking Luddites burn the bridges before they are built. That is a danger under the current political current. But the need for alternative fuels is so apparent, that it is possible the Luddites in political control will overlook this one shining promise.
Synthetic biology refers to both the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world, and the redesign and fabrication of existing biological systems. As tools are developed to hone and refine this technology, researchers across multiple disciplines are finding novel applications for it.

...One company that provides the raw material for the creation of biofuels is Agrivida, an agricultural biotech firm that creates renewable, biomass-based alternative fuels and raw materials. “We are working upstream, making plants that are more easily degradable, primarily switchgrass, sugar cane, and corn,” states R. Michael Raab, founder and president. “We are focused on nonfood crops and crop residues that are degradable into fuel.”

...Gevo develops advanced biofuels technology based on butanol and its derivatives. “The magic isn’t in the biology alone,” according to Pat Gruber, Ph.D., CEO. “It’s in the chemistry, fermentation, processing, and genetic engineering all together; knowing what tools you need, and having the tools to make it happen.”

Dr. Gruber points out that three critical pieces of technology have helped Gevo produce these on a commercial scale. “We have a group that’s been working on this for 20 years or longer. Metabolic engineering of suitable host organisms make it possible to use carbon and energy efficiently for fuel production. Process engineering makes it possible to lower product separation costs and chemistry to produce valuable hydrocarbons.”

...Two other companies working in the metabolic engineering space are Mascoma and LS9. Mascoma recently received $26 million in DOE funding, which will be applied toward the development of a cellulosic fuel production facility that uses nonfood biomass to convert woodchips into fuel. Mascoma’s production facility is expected to produce 40 million gallons of ethanol and other valuable fuel products per year.

LS9 developed new metabolic pathways that efficiently convert fatty acids to a broad portfolio of petroleum replacements. It also discovered and engineered a new class of enzymes and their associated genes that catalyze the efficient conversion of fatty acids to hydrocarbons. They recombinantly produce hydrocarbons (oxygen-deficient biocrudes), fatty acid alkyl esters (biodiesel), and a variety of industrial chemicals from sugars via fatty acid biosynthesis.

...Codexis’ technology enables solutions for cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally sound production of pharmaceuticals, transportation fuels, and industrial chemicals, reports David Anton, Ph.D., vp, bioindustrials R&D. The company focuses on biocatalysts—enzymes or microbes that initiate or accelerate chemical reactions. At Codexis, biocatalysis is used to design faster, less costly, and greener chemistry-based manufacturing processes in the life science and energy industries.

According to Dr. Anton, Codexis’ technology makes it possible to customize enzymes capable of selectively and efficiently performing a desired chemical process that doesn’t exist in nature.

...SunEthanol was recently awarded a $750,000 Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer Program contract. This award, made as a follow-up for successfully completing a year-long Phase I grant, will allow SunEthanol to continue pioneering a process that converts plant waste into clean ethanol fuel in one simple step, saving time and money over the traditional two-step cellulosic conversion process, the company claims.

... _GenEngNews
Several more companies are mentioned and linked in the above Genengnews article. It is impossible to keep track of all the research efforts in synthetic biology that will influence biosynthetic fuels development. Every university biology or agriculture department with a significant research program will be working on this problem, in all likelihood. Whether or not the world economy improves, fuel prices will rise. If the Luddites in control suppress energy technologies, energy prices will rise out of scarcity. If the Luddites are given a well-deserved boot in the arse, energy prices will rise as economies improve. Those who are prepared will prosper. Those who are not prepared, will It is the harsh way of the universe.

Previously published at Al Fin

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