Synthetic Biology for Next-Generation Biofuels

BIOlogo.2The 2009 World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, is in full swing in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and I had the opportunity to listen in to a webinar sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). The session focused on the technical and commercial advances in the use of synthetic biology for next-generation biofuels.

Four companies participated in the panel and each company is working on different technologies using different feedstocks. LS9 is creating “renewable petroleum” to produce a green diesel coined LS9 logoRenewable Petroleum. “I think diesel is where we need to be,” said CEO Bill Haywood. Their feedstocks include low-carbon, natural sources of sugar such as sugar cane and cellulosic biomass. Patent-pending UltraClean™ fuels are custom engineered to have higher energetic content than ethanol or butanol; to have fuel properties that are essentially indistinguishable from those of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel; and to be distributed in existing pipeline infrastructure and run in any vehicle. In addition, their product is price competitive at $50 a barrel.

Amyris logoAmyris is also a company focused on converting sugar to biodiesel.  The company recently opened a full-scale demonstration plant in Brazil and is currently testing its product. At a 20 percent blend level (B20) the company’s biodiesel reduces NOX, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. “Our tests show that there is a 94 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse emissions when producing diesel from sugarcane,” said Neil Renninger, co-founder and CTO. The company is looking to purchase existing ethanol plants and mills and then retrofitting the plants with their technology.

solazyme-logoWhere LS9 is primarily focused on sugar, Solazyme is focused on using algae to produce fuel and claim to be the first company to do so. “Algae are the original oil producers,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO,” and making oil is two-step process: photosynthesis and converting chemicals to oil.” Although algae is the most efficient plant in the world to produce oil, it is not the most cost effective, explained Wolfson. “Cost is king. We need high volume low cost feedstocks.” Wolfson noted that all 12 algae strains they are working with outperform all current cellulosic feedstocks.

logo_gevo_tag_lgLet’s not forget biobutanol, a product that many in the industry consider to be the ethanol evil step child. Butanol is the fuel of choice for Gevo. Patrick Gruber, CEO notes that a key to success is using feedstocks that can be fermented inexpensively – an advantage of the feedstocks used in first generation ethanol production. With butanol, he says, you can create the butanol first and then turn it into other chemicals. It’s other advantage over ethanol is that it has a lower vapor pressure (ethanol increases vapor pressure), which, explains Gruber, “makes it cheaper than ethanol in the long run.” In addition, it won’t take years to begin producing butanol; it can be produced today. According to ICM, it will take only 6-7 months to retrofit a current ethanol biorefinery.

As the world moves into a new hydrocarbon economy, there are many ways to do this. In this case, competing technologies will not hurt the development of the next generation of biofuels but help it. The world will need all of these technologies to move away from its fossil fuel economy. To see more comments from the panel, visit BIO’s blog.

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