Saturday, September 29, 2007

More on synthetic biology for biofuels... Economist Article: "Ethanol, Schmethanol"...

Synthetic biofuels have apparently captured the attention of the media in a big way in recent weeks. Just one week after our own Energy Club Biofuels Blog post on synthetic biology companies working on advanced biofuels, the Economist came out with a nice article on the subject.

(One always has to wonder if Vijay Vaitheswareen, MIT alum and Economist Energy/Enviro editor, is the author of any given Economist energy article.... It was a pleasure having him speak at the MIT Energy Conference last year)

A brief run down on the highlights here:

The article discussed the move toward higher energy density/lower water absorbing tendency bio-butanol by a joint venture between Dupont and BP. Interestingly, the article claims that BP whas plans to start selling bio-butanol blended fuels in the next few weeks. I was not aware that they were deploying butanol on such an accelerated schedule...

A couple of firms with initial roots in drug development were also featured:

  • Codexis, a CA-Bay Area based firm, is a leading developer of enyzymes with new functionalities using molecular evolution. It's main commercial product is the enzyme system that is used to make the chemical precursor for Lipitor, a Pfizer cholesterol drug. They first got interested in biofuels by the possibility of making enzymes to create octanol (8-carbon alcohol = highest energy density alcohol you can get before freezing becomes an issue. Polar molecules like alcohols like to bind to each other, unlike non-polar molucules like hydrocarbons, and thus freeze more easily). Their CEO, Alan Shaw, now says they are working on another undisclosed biofuel molecule. Interesting......
  • Amyris Biotechnologyies, another CA-Bay Area firm that was mentioned in the last post here, was founded by Jay Keasling, perhaps the world's most famous synthetic biologist and a prof at U.C. Berkeley. The firm was also initially focused on drug development (artemisinin - an antimalarial), but has re-oriented itself to focus on biofuels. Artemisin is in the iseprenoid chemical class (which includes rubber) and this class of chemicals is Amyris' focus in biofuels as well.

A couple of pure-play synthetic biology biofuels companies were mentioned as well:

  • LS9, also a Bay Area firm that was mentioned in our last post, is claimed by the article to be focused on using synthetic biology for fatty acid production - one of the key inputs in the production of biodiesel. The company plans to also develop organisms that will produce long chain fatty acids (too long for biodiesel production) along with syntheic biological pathways to clip the oxygen atoms out of the fatty acids to make pure hydrocarbons or what it calls bio-crude.
  • Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville, MD based Craig Venter biofuels startup mentioned in the last posting here, was also mentioned prominently in the article, but with no details on the exact technology approach they are using. My favorite excerpt: "... Venter goes as far as to posit the idea of clinical trials for biofuels - presumably pitting one againist another, perhaps with petroleum-based products acting as the control..."

I am very happy to see the biotech industry re-orienting itself from only drugs to include energy. And interestingly, the biotech industry may well be one of the most suitable high-tech industries to develop and deploy new liquid fuels at scale, especially with the industry's expertise and understanding of public policy and regulation and the industry's long product development cycles (inherent to energy as well). However, of course, not all lessons from the drug industry, such as drug trials, apply so well to energy. :)


Private said...

Range Fuels’ technology has been tested and proven in bench and pilot-scale units for over 7 years. Over 8,000 hours of testing has been completed on over 20 different non-food feedstocks with varying moisture contents and sizes, including wood waste, olive pits, and more. This technology will be used in our first plant planned for a site near Soperton, Georgia.

David Danielson said...

Range is doing biomass gasification to syngas and then catalysts to liquid fuels, correct?

I read in the NYTimes this weekend that there is currently an ethanol glut due to the dual bottlenecks of the end use market not evolving rapidly enough (E85 pumps) and limited transport capabilities.

I can see the gas stations starting to use E85 relatively quickly either by mandate or public pressure. However, the transport infrastructure seems to be a much greater problem with a long lead time and lots of investment required.

How will this get solved to enable the growing ethanol production to get its product to market??

Do the big oil players need to start getting involved to solve these challenges?

Private said...

Yes you are correct on Rnage. The transportation answer is destination plants like Altra Biofuels/Cilion that are in the heart of the fuel market like CA and NY. Shipping costs are minimal. VSE is in trouble because of this. They stopped production of a plant in the midwest. Ship the corn to the plant that is within miles of the refinery is the answer...

David Danielson said...

Regarding the transportation bottleneck, how do destination plants near high demand markets solve this problem.

You either have to send corn or ethanol from where it is to where the demand centers are, right?

Please help me understand your comment better.


Steve said...

Perhaps in urban areas in the midwest, there might be reasonable transportation costs from nearby farmland. Here are a few interesting maps that I thought could be interesting to discuss:

Population Map

Farmland Map

Gasoline Pipeline Map

Ethanol Pipeline transportation issues


Marjorie said...
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