Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Novel Approaches to Biofuels

MIT's Technology Review has a story on Joule Energy's micro-organism, with a novel genetic switch incorporated:
Joule's bioengineers have equipped their micro├Ârganisms with a genetic switch that limits growth. The scientists allow them to multiply for only a couple of days before flipping that switch to divert the organisms' energy from growth into fuel production. While other companies try to grow as much biomass as possible, Afeyan says, "I want to make as little biomass as I can." In retrospect, the approach might seem obvious. Indeed, the startup Synthetic Genomics and an academic group at the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota are also working on making fuels directly from carbon dioxide. Joule hopes to succeed by developing both its organisms and its photobioreactor from scratch, so that they work perfectly together. _TechnologyReview

Joule's approach is exactly the opposite of that taken by a team from the University of Michigan. They maximise biomass in order to pyrolyse the entire bulk of algae into bio-crude.
The pressure-cooker method the U-M researchers are studying bucks the trend in algae-to-fuel processing. The conventional technique involves cultivating special, oily types of algae, drying the algae and then extracting its oil.

The hydrothermal process this project employs allows researchers to start with less-oily types of algae. The process also eliminates the need to dry it, overcoming two major barriers to large-scale conversion of microalgae to liquid fuels.

"We make an algae soup," Savage said. "We heat it to about 300 degrees and keep the water at high enough pressure to keep it liquid as opposed to steam. We cook it for 30 minutes to an hour and we get a crude bio-oil."

The high temperature and pressure allows the algae to react with the water and break down. Not only does the native oil get released, but proteins and carbohydrates also decompose and add to the fuel yield. _EnergyPublisher

Genencor is taking an even broader approach, by engineering a microbe that can produce both biofuels and isoprene -- synthetic rubber for tires.
Genencor, the industrial enzyme specialist, has engineered a microorganism that can produce a version of isoprene that is chemically identical to the 1.7 billion pounds of isoprene created annually with fossil fuels. This so-called BioIsoprene can then be converted into jet fuel, diesel, polymers or synthetic rubber through additional chemical processes.

...How these different products get to market will vary. The company could ship raw BioIsoprene or establish joint ventures for finished or semi-finished products. Revenue from Genencor comes to around $800 million a year.

"One of our core competencies is the design and optimization of the cell factory," LaDuca said. "We make microorganisms to do work for us." _GreenTechMedia

Bioenergy, biofuels, high value chemicals, cosmetics, nutraceuticals, and animal feed. All of that and more will be produced routinely from microbes, biomass, agricultural and forestry waste, municipal waste, and other assorted materials currently considered worthless garbage.

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