R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Catching Up

Back home now, just trying to catch up on the energy news of note. Four stories that I want to highlight. First was POET’s announcement on their progress on cellulosic ethanol:

Poet hits ‘long shot,’ cuts cellulosic ethanol costs

WASHINGTON – The head of the world’s largest ethanol producer, Sioux Falls-based Poet, said Wednesday that his company has drastically cut its cellulosic ethanol production costs.

It is a breakthrough that will allow cellulosic ethanol to compete with gasoline within two years.

Jeff Broin, Poet chief executive, told reporters during a roundtable discussion that the company has reduced its cellulosic ethanol production cost during the past year from $4.13 a gallon to $2.35 a gallon.

Andrew Leonard of Salon asked me for some comments, which he included in a story on the news:


Who cares about peak oil when you have corn cobs?

In addition to what made it into the story (and those comments were specifically about the kinds of risk factors POET faces), I said that I thought the guys at POET had done a nice job on this (that comment did make it into the follow-up story at Salon). One thing that isn’t clear to me is whether the production cost includes any capital recovery. If not, then they still have some distance to go to get that $2.35 into an economic range with ethanol presently trading at about $2.00 a gallon. [Edit: A comment from Nathan Schock of POET over at Green Car Congress indicates that this is in fact the total production cost – including depreciation]. Another question I would have is how their version of the process performs with other sources of biomass.

One other thing I said to Andrew (that didn’t make it into the story) is the really big challenge is in getting those ethanol titers up. Low titers mean lots of energy is spent in getting the water out. This is why I have always favored gasification technologies over hydrolysis technologies: You don’t have water to deal with, and thus the BTU efficiency is potentially going to be higher. (Probably your capital costs as well will be higher for gasification – depending on what you are producing from the syngas). If biomass costs rise in the future – as I expect them to – then there will be added incentive for maximizing BTU efficiency.

The second story was sent by a reader. In light of the amount of corn we produce, this could have significant ramifications:

Amaizing: Corn Genome Decoded

A team of scientists led by The Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published the completed corn genome in the Nov. 20 journal Science, an accomplishment that will speed efforts to develop better crop varieties to meet the world’s growing demands for food, livestock feed and fuel.

The United States is the world’s top corn grower, producing 44 percent of the global crop. In 2009, U.S. farmers are expected to produce nearly 13 billion bushels of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The next story is about a trend that I think will continue. In my presentation in Orlando, one of the trends that I pointed out is that more refineries are being built closer to the source of the oil. Saudi produces crude, but would like to capture more of that value chain by refining it as well. There are a number of very large refinery projects underway – especially in Asia and the Middle East – and in a world with stagnant oil production that means some refineries are going to shut down. In the U.S., our refining capacity is more than three times greater than our oil production rates. I see a dismal outlook for refining in the U.S., with a lot of refiners going out of business in the U.S. Valero just announced another refinery closing:

Valero refinery in Delaware City to close permanently

DELAWARE CITY, Del. — Valero Energy said this morning it plans to permanently close its Delaware City Refinery, eliminating hundreds of high-paying jobs, because of weak economic conditions, high local costs and chronic troubles at the 210,000 barrel-per-day complex.

Company spokesman Bill Day said that a plantwide maintenance shutdown, announced late last month, was already under way, and will convert to a final closing. Plant employees will continue on the payroll for 60 days under federal rules for large-scale layoffs.

Day said the plant — which produces about 70 percent of the gasoline sold on the Delmarva Peninsula— has lost $1 million a day since the start of 2009.

About 550 full time workers will be put out of work by the decision. Valero (VLO) also has notified companies that work closely with the refinery, Day said, but effects on those operations were not immediately available.

People forget that refining is a very tough business. They remember when refiners make money – as they were doing a couple of years ago – but forget that most of the time they aren’t making money. Plus, when they do make money they are subjected to accusations of gouging and calls from politicians to tax their windfall.

Finally, readers know that I have consistently avoided wading into the debate over global warming. It takes enough of my time just trying to keep up with the latest energy news, and I decided long ago to sit out the debate on climate change. It is far too politicized and people get too emotional over the issue. However, I do think it is important that the debate takes place, and I don’t like to see people trying to shut it down. Attaching labels like “denier” to people who question the science is an attempt to shut down debate, and I don’t care how right you think you are – in my view the debate needs to go on.

A couple of days ago it was announced that some e-mails from a climate research outfit in England had been hacked:

Global Warming Research Exposed After Hack

A climate change dust-up

I have to say that some of the e-mails I have seen posted are troubling. Whatever history ultimately shows, some of those e-mails appear to be agenda-driven and not science-driven. There is no place for that.

Let the debate carry on, and let science – not agendas – determine the outcome.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, genetic engineering, global warming, greenhouse gases, oil refineries, POET, refining, Salon, valero | 118 Comments

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

I have only half-jokingly commented before that the ideal microorganism for energy production would consume garbage and excrete gasoline, which would float to the top of a reactor to be skimmed off via a low-energy process. Technically, there isn’t any reason that this shouldn’t be feasible. It’s just a matter of understanding the metabolic pathways, and successfully doing the genetic engineering. But to put that into perspective, it is probably also technically feasible to engineer humans to use photosynthesis for energy, or to engineer a blueberry tree. In other words, technically feasible is often a long way from imminently doable.

But there has been a flurry of stories this week about another venture backed by Vinod Khosla called LS9 which bills itself as the renewable petroleum company and is promising something not too far from what I have described above. A story this week by David Roberts of Gristmill captures the highlights:

LS9 promises ‘renewable petroleum’

The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it’s generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9’s microbes produce — via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won’t claim to understand — hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don’t mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That’s where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

There is certainly no reason to think that this isn’t technically feasible. After all, the human body produces fatty acids that have a chemical structure that involves long-chain hydrocarbons. It is not far-fetched to accept that organisms can be engineered to produce very specific hydrocarbons. And I do think this is a much better approach than producing ethanol that requires an energy intensive distillation to remove the water.

Roberts writes:

Can you be more concise?

Sure. LS9 has genetically engineered microbes that will eat sugar and crap oil.

Naturally, this all piqued my interest. Since several news releases referred to “patents pending”, I went and searched the United States Patent Office for published applications. After an hour of searching, I came up empty. But, that’s not necessarily a negative indicator. I have had patents that took a while to work their way through the process. It just means that it is harder to understand whether there is more hype here than warranted, because the technical details aren’t in the public record. I wrote to LS9, and they responded back immediately and said 1). They read this blog; and 2). No, their applications aren’t yet published.

So, thwarted on that front, I started looking through their web site in search of 1). Advertised job openings; and 2). The specific skill set of the team they have in place. Both of these things can tell you a lot. If they are advertising for a lot of public relations types and are skimpy on looking for scientists and engineers, then my suspicion is raised. Likewise if they are very generic about available openings. But, they did have specific advertised openings for those sorts of technical positions. So I view that as a positive.

On the second item, the background of the team can tell you a lot. In order to have a good chance at success, I would expect that they are putting together a team knowledgeable about specific metabolic pathways for microorganisms. I found that. Again, as soon as their web site is back online, I will be more specific.

At this stage, I see no reason to doubt their claims, but you essentially have to take them at their word. But I give very good odds that even if they don’t pull this off, someone will. I will try to update this story as more information comes out.

A bit of additional reading:

Making Gasoline from Bacteria

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds [Stephen del Carayre, VP for R&D], because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

At least they have their facts in order. Of course all of those who insist that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline aren’t going to like that.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | biofuels, biotechnology, genetic engineering, LS9, Vinod Khosla | Comments Off on LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

I have only half-jokingly commented before that the ideal microorganism for energy production would consume garbage and excrete gasoline, which would float to the top of a reactor to be skimmed off via a low-energy process. Technically, there isn’t any reason that this shouldn’t be feasible. It’s just a matter of understanding the metabolic pathways, and successfully doing the genetic engineering. But to put that into perspective, it is probably also technically feasible to engineer humans to use photosynthesis for energy, or to engineer a blueberry tree. In other words, technically feasible is often a long way from imminently doable.

But there has been a flurry of stories this week about another venture backed by Vinod Khosla called LS9 which bills itself as the renewable petroleum company and is promising something not too far from what I have described above. A story this week by David Roberts of Gristmill captures the highlights:

LS9 promises ‘renewable petroleum’

The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it’s generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9’s microbes produce — via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won’t claim to understand — hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don’t mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That’s where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

There is certainly no reason to think that this isn’t technically feasible. After all, the human body produces fatty acids that have a chemical structure that involves long-chain hydrocarbons. It is not far-fetched to accept that organisms can be engineered to produce very specific hydrocarbons. And I do think this is a much better approach than producing ethanol that requires an energy intensive distillation to remove the water.

Roberts writes:

Can you be more concise?

Sure. LS9 has genetically engineered microbes that will eat sugar and crap oil.

Naturally, this all piqued my interest. Since several news releases referred to “patents pending”, I went and searched the United States Patent Office for published applications. After an hour of searching, I came up empty. But, that’s not necessarily a negative indicator. I have had patents that took a while to work their way through the process. It just means that it is harder to understand whether there is more hype here than warranted, because the technical details aren’t in the public record. I wrote to LS9, and they responded back immediately and said 1). They read this blog; and 2). No, their applications aren’t yet published.

So, thwarted on that front, I started looking through their web site in search of 1). Advertised job openings; and 2). The specific skill set of the team they have in place. Both of these things can tell you a lot. If they are advertising for a lot of public relations types and are skimpy on looking for scientists and engineers, then my suspicion is raised. Likewise if they are very generic about available openings. But, they did have specific advertised openings for those sorts of technical positions. So I view that as a positive.

On the second item, the background of the team can tell you a lot. In order to have a good chance at success, I would expect that they are putting together a team knowledgeable about specific metabolic pathways for microorganisms. I found that. Again, as soon as their web site is back online, I will be more specific.

At this stage, I see no reason to doubt their claims, but you essentially have to take them at their word. But I give very good odds that even if they don’t pull this off, someone will. I will try to update this story as more information comes out.

A bit of additional reading:

Making Gasoline from Bacteria

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds [Stephen del Carayre, VP for R&D], because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

At least they have their facts in order. Of course all of those who insist that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline aren’t going to like that.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | biofuels, biotechnology, genetic engineering, LS9, Vinod Khosla | 29 Comments

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

I have only half-jokingly commented before that the ideal microorganism for energy production would consume garbage and excrete gasoline, which would float to the top of a reactor to be skimmed off via a low-energy process. Technically, there isn’t any reason that this shouldn’t be feasible. It’s just a matter of understanding the metabolic pathways, and successfully doing the genetic engineering. But to put that into perspective, it is probably also technically feasible to engineer humans to use photosynthesis for energy, or to engineer a blueberry tree. In other words, technically feasible is often a long way from imminently doable.

But there has been a flurry of stories this week about another venture backed by Vinod Khosla called LS9 which bills itself as the renewable petroleum company and is promising something not too far from what I have described above. A story this week by David Roberts of Gristmill captures the highlights:

LS9 promises ‘renewable petroleum’

The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it’s generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9’s microbes produce — via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won’t claim to understand — hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don’t mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That’s where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

There is certainly no reason to think that this isn’t technically feasible. After all, the human body produces fatty acids that have a chemical structure that involves long-chain hydrocarbons. It is not far-fetched to accept that organisms can be engineered to produce very specific hydrocarbons. And I do think this is a much better approach than producing ethanol that requires an energy intensive distillation to remove the water.

Roberts writes:

Can you be more concise?

Sure. LS9 has genetically engineered microbes that will eat sugar and crap oil.

Naturally, this all piqued my interest. Since several news releases referred to “patents pending”, I went and searched the United States Patent Office for published applications. After an hour of searching, I came up empty. But, that’s not necessarily a negative indicator. I have had patents that took a while to work their way through the process. It just means that it is harder to understand whether there is more hype here than warranted, because the technical details aren’t in the public record. I wrote to LS9, and they responded back immediately and said 1). They read this blog; and 2). No, their applications aren’t yet published.

So, thwarted on that front, I started looking through their web site in search of 1). Advertised job openings; and 2). The specific skill set of the team they have in place. Both of these things can tell you a lot. If they are advertising for a lot of public relations types and are skimpy on looking for scientists and engineers, then my suspicion is raised. Likewise if they are very generic about available openings. But, they did have specific advertised openings for those sorts of technical positions. So I view that as a positive.

On the second item, the background of the team can tell you a lot. In order to have a good chance at success, I would expect that they are putting together a team knowledgeable about specific metabolic pathways for microorganisms. I found that. Again, as soon as their web site is back online, I will be more specific.

At this stage, I see no reason to doubt their claims, but you essentially have to take them at their word. But I give very good odds that even if they don’t pull this off, someone will. I will try to update this story as more information comes out.

A bit of additional reading:

Making Gasoline from Bacteria

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds [Stephen del Carayre, VP for R&D], because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

At least they have their facts in order. Of course all of those who insist that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline aren’t going to like that.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | biofuels, biotechnology, genetic engineering, LS9, Vinod Khosla | Comments Off on LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

I have only half-jokingly commented before that the ideal microorganism for energy production would consume garbage and excrete gasoline, which would float to the top of a reactor to be skimmed off via a low-energy process. Technically, there isn’t any reason that this shouldn’t be feasible. It’s just a matter of understanding the metabolic pathways, and successfully doing the genetic engineering. But to put that into perspective, it is probably also technically feasible to engineer humans to use photosynthesis for energy, or to engineer a blueberry tree. In other words, technically feasible is often a long way from imminently doable.

But there has been a flurry of stories this week about another venture backed by Vinod Khosla called LS9 which bills itself as the renewable petroleum company and is promising something not too far from what I have described above. A story this week by David Roberts of Gristmill captures the highlights:

LS9 promises ‘renewable petroleum’

The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it’s generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9’s microbes produce — via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won’t claim to understand — hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don’t mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That’s where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

There is certainly no reason to think that this isn’t technically feasible. After all, the human body produces fatty acids that have a chemical structure that involves long-chain hydrocarbons. It is not far-fetched to accept that organisms can be engineered to produce very specific hydrocarbons. And I do think this is a much better approach than producing ethanol that requires an energy intensive distillation to remove the water.

Roberts writes:

Can you be more concise?

Sure. LS9 has genetically engineered microbes that will eat sugar and crap oil.

Naturally, this all piqued my interest. Since several news releases referred to “patents pending”, I went and searched the United States Patent Office for published applications. After an hour of searching, I came up empty. But, that’s not necessarily a negative indicator. I have had patents that took a while to work their way through the process. It just means that it is harder to understand whether there is more hype here than warranted, because the technical details aren’t in the public record. I wrote to LS9, and they responded back immediately and said 1). They read this blog; and 2). No, their applications aren’t yet published.

So, thwarted on that front, I started looking through their web site in search of 1). Advertised job openings; and 2). The specific skill set of the team they have in place. Both of these things can tell you a lot. If they are advertising for a lot of public relations types and are skimpy on looking for scientists and engineers, then my suspicion is raised. Likewise if they are very generic about available openings. But, they did have specific advertised openings for those sorts of technical positions. So I view that as a positive.

On the second item, the background of the team can tell you a lot. In order to have a good chance at success, I would expect that they are putting together a team knowledgeable about specific metabolic pathways for microorganisms. I found that. Again, as soon as their web site is back online, I will be more specific.

At this stage, I see no reason to doubt their claims, but you essentially have to take them at their word. But I give very good odds that even if they don’t pull this off, someone will. I will try to update this story as more information comes out.

A bit of additional reading:

Making Gasoline from Bacteria

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds [Stephen del Carayre, VP for R&D], because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

At least they have their facts in order. Of course all of those who insist that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline aren’t going to like that.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | biofuels, biotechnology, genetic engineering, LS9, Vinod Khosla | Comments Off on LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

I have only half-jokingly commented before that the ideal microorganism for energy production would consume garbage and excrete gasoline, which would float to the top of a reactor to be skimmed off via a low-energy process. Technically, there isn’t any reason that this shouldn’t be feasible. It’s just a matter of understanding the metabolic pathways, and successfully doing the genetic engineering. But to put that into perspective, it is probably also technically feasible to engineer humans to use photosynthesis for energy, or to engineer a blueberry tree. In other words, technically feasible is often a long way from imminently doable.

But there has been a flurry of stories this week about another venture backed by Vinod Khosla called LS9 which bills itself as the renewable petroleum company and is promising something not too far from what I have described above. A story this week by David Roberts of Gristmill captures the highlights:

LS9 promises ‘renewable petroleum’

The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it’s generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9’s microbes produce — via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won’t claim to understand — hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don’t mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That’s where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

There is certainly no reason to think that this isn’t technically feasible. After all, the human body produces fatty acids that have a chemical structure that involves long-chain hydrocarbons. It is not far-fetched to accept that organisms can be engineered to produce very specific hydrocarbons. And I do think this is a much better approach than producing ethanol that requires an energy intensive distillation to remove the water.

Roberts writes:

Can you be more concise?

Sure. LS9 has genetically engineered microbes that will eat sugar and crap oil.

Naturally, this all piqued my interest. Since several news releases referred to “patents pending”, I went and searched the United States Patent Office for published applications. After an hour of searching, I came up empty. But, that’s not necessarily a negative indicator. I have had patents that took a while to work their way through the process. It just means that it is harder to understand whether there is more hype here than warranted, because the technical details aren’t in the public record. I wrote to LS9, and they responded back immediately and said 1). They read this blog; and 2). No, their applications aren’t yet published.

So, thwarted on that front, I started looking through their web site in search of 1). Advertised job openings; and 2). The specific skill set of the team they have in place. Both of these things can tell you a lot. If they are advertising for a lot of public relations types and are skimpy on looking for scientists and engineers, then my suspicion is raised. Likewise if they are very generic about available openings. But, they did have specific advertised openings for those sorts of technical positions. So I view that as a positive.

On the second item, the background of the team can tell you a lot. In order to have a good chance at success, I would expect that they are putting together a team knowledgeable about specific metabolic pathways for microorganisms. I found that. Again, as soon as their web site is back online, I will be more specific.

At this stage, I see no reason to doubt their claims, but you essentially have to take them at their word. But I give very good odds that even if they don’t pull this off, someone will. I will try to update this story as more information comes out.

A bit of additional reading:

Making Gasoline from Bacteria

Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds [Stephen del Carayre, VP for R&D], because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

At least they have their facts in order. Of course all of those who insist that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline aren’t going to like that.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | biofuels, biotechnology, genetic engineering, LS9, Vinod Khosla | Comments Off on LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs