Friday, June 25, 2010

More Big Money Pours Into Algae, High Value Co-Products

Toyota’s research and development group, Hitachi Ltd, has joined more than 40 Japanese companies and organisations in investigating the potential to turn algae into biofuel to power its vehicles. _CarAdvice

Craig Venter, the man who mapped the human gene, is all over algae. Exxon Mobil entered into a partnership with Venter’s Synthetic Genomics (SGI) in mid-2009 to apply SGI expertise in genetic engineering to create algae that can produce biofuels on a large, economical scale. Exxon Mobil had committed to invest more than $600-million in this effort – which is peanuts for the world’s largest oil company but a lot of money for a scientist.

...“Petroleum is algae that’s been processed by the earth’s crust for hundreds of thousands of years,” says Haig, “although everyone thinks it’s dinosaurs. But there is now the prospect to skip the earth’s crust’s work and go direct from algae. Algae is up to 50 per cent by weight lipids – fats. That’s perfect for biodiesel.” _Globe&Mail

Liao used genetically modified E. coli bacteria and cyanobacteria to streamline the photosynthesis process used by other algae-to-fuel processes. His “one-pot bioprocessing” approach enables the microorganisms to directly convert carbon dioxide into higher alcohols with between three and eight carbon atoms. Those alcohols can then be further processed to produce green fuels.

...“The first practical application will probably be to hook up to power plants and recycle some of the CO2 and make it into fuel,” Liao said. While the technology has the potential for multiple uses, he said, “the first goal is to use it as a gasoline replacement.” _Greenbang
Liao predicts his award-winning process will take between 5 to 10 years to achieve commercial success via the startup "Easel."

But before microbial fuels begin to displace petro-fuels, we will see the commercial success of bio-based high value chemicals and other co-products. The success of these early co-products will help finance the development of competitive processes to produce biofuels.

For example, Iowa State University researchers are developing enzymes for the production of the valuable chemical Iso-Butene. Isobutene is "a gas that is currently used in the production of a variety of chemicals and in the manufacture of other fuel additives, adhesive, plastics and synthetic rubber. Isobutene can be converted to isooctane, used in gasoline." _GCC.

Synthetic biology company Amyris has agreed with Proctor & Gamble to produce high value chemical products for use in P&G's many commercial products. Such collaborations provide small companies with early cash flow and solid contracts to show to investors and lenders, to facilitate expansions.

If entrepreneurs and managers associated with small biofuel startups are intelligent, they will aim for small but solid niches in order to secure an early revenue stream. Further expansion and/or specialisation can be leveraged upon early successes.

Bio-energy theorists need to reject the "all or nothing" mentality which is the curse of academia, the media, think tanks, and politics, and think more along the lines of developing strategic toe-holds -- no matter how small, in the beginning. As long as the long-term logic is sound, the early successes can be built upon.



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