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A New Approach to Biogasoline

My ideal microbe for biofuel production would consume garbage, excrete gasoline, and die if it escapes into the wild. Excretion of longer chain hydrocarbons like gasoline would enable a less energy-intensive separation, because the product would phase out of water. LS9 is exploring this sort of pathway via microbes, and Virent is trying to do the same thing catalytically.

It is quite a challenging problem, but should be technically viable. And a company that can achieve an edge in this space could really dominate the biofuels arena. As I have said, it is difficult, but Holy Grail research.

Today a new and quite novel approach was announced in the Journal of the American Chemical Society:

Synthesis of Methyl Halides from Biomass Using Engineered Microbes

Professor Christopher Voigt and his team at UC San Francisco are researching a multi-pronged approach to the problem. They are using a bacterium that was discovered at a landfill in France to consume cellulose and convert it to acetate. (This was exactly what I did in graduate school, except we were using microbes from the stomachs of cattle to convert cellulose into acetate. After all, the stomach of a cow is a cellulose conversion factory).

Once acetate is produced, Professor’s Voigt’s team utilized a yeast to convert the acetate into a methyl halide. The beauty of this approach is three-fold. First, the acetate poisons the bacterium as the concentration builds, but the yeast prevents that by consuming it as it is produced. Second, the product comes off as a gas, simplifying the separation of the product from the aqueous solution. Finally, methyl halides can be converted into gasoline catalytically.

So what’s the catch? Generally the yields and reaction rates via these sorts of approaches are too low to be economically viable. This means that even if you have something that phases out of solution (or a gas that bubbles out in this case) the reactor(s) may need to be enormous to produce commercial quantities of product. Another potential issue here is the possibility that other gases are produced along with the methyl halides, potentially requiring a separation after all. Finally, methyl halides have never been turned into gasoline at large scale. If the economics were attractive, we would probably be using this process to convert natural gas into gasoline.

Still, this is a very interesting approach and an avenue that appears to be worthy of much more research.

Finally, hat tip to a reader for bringing this story to my attention earlier today.

Additional Reading

Lab finds new method to turn biomass into gasoline

Yeast and bacterium turned into gasoline factory

Californians engineer microbes to produce methyl halides

April 22, 2009 Posted by | biofuels, biogasoline, LS9, Virent | 133 Comments

Amyris is Looking Promising

As I have said before, an ideal biofuel would be one that phases out of water, and is therefore much less energy intensive to separate. One of the big energy sinks in ethanol production involves an energy intensive separation of ethanol from water. If ethanol was insoluble it would phase out of solution and could be skimmed off and separated for a fraction of the energy input.

This is the sort of model that companies like LS9 and Virent have adopted. They are using microorganisms to produce longer-chain hydrocarbons that not only are much easier to separate from water, but also have higher energy density. I have commented in the past that this is ‘Holy Grail’ stuff, but also would be technically challenging. But I think companies pursuing this line of research have a real shot at being ultimately successful.

Add Amyris to the list of companies competing for the Holy Grail. They also have a twist to their business plan that should give them an advantage over their competitors. Amyris has been mentioned on this blog a couple of times previously, but not in the same kind of detail as LS9. This post will rectify that by highlighting what they are doing.

First, what are they doing? In their own words:

Amyris technology makes it possible to alter the metabolic pathways of microorganisms such as yeasts, creating living factories that produce molecules with practical applications. While reading, writing, and analyzing the DNA of microbes once took years, Amyris can now reprogram microorganisms and test our ability to produce desired molecules in days to weeks. Our proprietary technology transforms plant-based feedstocks, such as sugarcane, into 50,000 different isoprenoids –molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications.

So you have heard similar claims before. However, they are quite a bit farther along than many would-be biofuel companies. They just announced the ‘opening’ (I presume that means they aren’t starting up just yet) of their first pilot plant in Emeryville, California:

Amyris Opens Pilot Plant to Produce Renewable Diesel Fuel

California Facility Marks Step in Developing and Commercializing Viable Alternative to Petroleum Fuels

EMERYVILLE, Calif. – November 12, 2008 – Amyris Biotechnologies, Inc. today announced that it has opened its first pilot plant producing No Compromise™ renewable diesel fuel. The pilot plant, which was ompleted in September, is an important milestone for Amyris towards its goal of developing and commercializing its sustainable, hydrocarbon‐based fuel, which it expects to bring to market in 2010.

The plant serves as a technical gateway to commercialization in Brazil and other manufacturing locations. It will demonstrate Amyris’ technology in scaled down process equipment that is representative of full ommercial scale operations; generate essential engineering data for designing Amyris’ full scale plants; and produce product samples for performance testing.

Amyris’ diesel is characterized as a No Compromise™ fuel because it is designed to be a scalable, low‐cost enewable fuel with performance attributes that equal or exceed those of petroleum‐sourced fuels and urrently available biofuels.

Other attributes innclude:

• Superior environmental performance: Preliminary analyses show that Amyris diesel fuel has virtually no sulfur and signifiantly reduced NOx, particulate, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon exhaust emissions relative to petroleum‐sourced diesel fuel.

• High blending rates: Because Amyris renewable diesel contains many of the properties of petroleum diesel, Amyris can blend the fuel at high levels ‐‐ up to 50 pecent ‐‐ compared with 10‐20 percent for conventional biodiesel and ethanol.

• Compatibility with existing infrastructure: Unlike many commercially available biofuels, Amyris expects to distribute its renewable diesel through the existing fuel distribution and storage infrastructure, thus speeding time to market while minimizing costs.

• Adaptive: Amyris can produce its fuels from a broad range of feedstock including sugar cane and cellulosic biomass. It is starting with Brazilian sugar cane because it provides the most environmentally sound, economical, and scalable source of energy available today.

“This new diesel fuel has all the characteristics to make an important contribution toward solving our global transportation energy and climate crisis,” said John Melo, chief executive officer of Amyris. “The opening of ur pilot plant is a significant business marker for us, taking us one step closer to bringing our diesel fuel to market.”

In parallel with this effort, Amyris will open a larger pilot plant in Campinas, Brazil in the spring of 2009 here it will finalize processes for Brazilian operations; transfer the technology to manufacturing sites in Brazil; and provide ongoing support for optimizing production in Brazil.

Earlier this year, Amyris established Amyris‐Crystalsev Biofuels, a Brazilian venture in partnership with Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol distributors and marketers, to work with Brazilian sugarcane mills and fuel producers to scale up production of Amyris diesel fuel. SantelisaVale, the second‐largest ethanol nd sugar producer in Brazil has committed two million tons of sugar cane crushing capacity for the initial roduction of Amyris diesel, including its flagship Santelisa mill.

Amyris’ proprietary synthetic biology platform enables Amyris scientists to engineer microorganisms such as yeast so that they can transform sugar into 50,000 different molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications. Amyris is working on the development and commercialization of everal of these molecules to provide a range of renewable products, including diesel fuel, jet fuel and specialty chemicals.

The platform has already proven successful through the development of a strain of yeast to enable the production of a precursor to artemisinin, a key ingredient in anti‐malarial drugs, at significantly lower cost than can be achieved with conventional technologies. This technology was developed as a not‐for‐profit initiative, and has been transferred to sanofi‐aventis.

About Amyris

Amyris is applying a proprietary synthetic biology platform to create No Compromise™ products ‐‐ low cost renewable fuels and chemicals that are intended to be environmentally friendly, compatible with the existing infrastructure, and have performance attributes comparable to petroleum‐based fuels. Amyris has also developed a technology to produce a second supply of an anti‐malarial drug. Founded in 2003, Amyris has raised over $120 million in equity funding to‐date, including investments from Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, TPG Biotech, and DAG Ventures. Amyris has over 200 employees and facilities in meryville, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Campinas, Brazil. More information about Amyris is available at http://www.amyris.com/.

The really interesting aspect of their business model is the Brazil angle. The U.S. currently has an import tariff on Brazilian ethanol. However, that tariff does not cover other biofuels coming from Brazil. By utilizing low-cost Brazilian sugar to make their biofuel, they stand a good chance of meeting their cost projects. Further, by making diesel – which is looking to be in tighter demand than gasoline for years to come – they are getting into a market with much better profit margins than ethanol has.

This, and some other highlights from a Greentech Media story:

Amyris: We’re Better Than Biodiesel, Ethanol or Gas

Amyris, for instance, will be able to produce a form of diesel that it will sell at the wholesale level for $2 a gallon or less, or around the same price as conventional fossil diesel, said CEO John Melo.

“It will be around the same price as regular petrol diesel, but it will produce 80 percent less greenhouse gases, provide a 10 percent reduction in NOx (nitrogen gases) and provide the same or better performance,” Melo said. “And with zero sulfur.”

The company’s jet fuel, which will replace kerosene-based fuels, will produce 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases than the regular stuff without denting performance or mileage, he said.

The big test for Amyris will arrive in about two years. The company has created joint ventures in Brazil to create biorefineries on sugar plantations where genetically engineered yeast will feast on freshly harvested sugar. The resulting fuel will then be loaded onto ships and brought to the U.S. By 2010, Amyris hopes to be producing 200 million gallons a year out of its first plant and erecting more plants.

Melo also pointed out that because Amyris isn’t producing ethanol (an alcohol) in Brazil but a hydrocarbon (a molecule includes hydrogen and carbons), the ethanol tariff on Brazilian ethanol doesn’t apply.

Promising stuff. To me it looks like they have a good chance of being successful.

Footnote: As is the case with LS9 and Virent, there is no Amyris stock that one can buy. It is a privately held venture.

November 13, 2008 Posted by | Amyris, LS9, Virent | 200 Comments

LS9 Stock

There was a major story a few days ago about LS9 in the Times Online:

Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol

I have previously written several articles that mentioned LS9, including:

LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs

Apparently as a result of the Times article, there have been a number of articles in the past couple of days on LS9. This naturally attracted the attention of investors, and I have literally had hundreds of hits to my LS9 story by people Googling LS9 stock. In fact, right now if you Google that (without quotation marks), my story comes up at the top of the first page.

So, in an effort to provide investors what they are looking for (the other LS9 story doesn’t provide this information): There is no publicly traded LS9 stock. LS9 is privately held. They have only taken on private equity. I have had some contacts with Greg Pal at LS9 in the past, so I wrote to ask him whether they were still accepting investments. His answer: We’re not accepting outside investment at this time. So, right now you are out of luck if you want to invest in LS9.

You might try LS9 competitor Virent. They are also private, but they might be open to outside investors. Contacting them may be worth a shot.

June 17, 2008 Posted by | investing, LS9, Virent | 7 Comments

Biogasoline from Shell

I think the general consensus was that the recent claims of agricultural researcher J.C. Bell don’t appear to be too compelling. However, as I mentioned, the conversion of biomass into oil or gasoline should be technically achievable. And today, Bob Rohatensky sent me a link to a story that would appear to have a little more meat to it than Bell’s claims:

Shell and Virent announce collaboration to develop biogasoline

Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc., (Virent (TM)) of Madison, Wisconsin USA, today announced a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol.

The collaboration could herald the availability of new biofuels that can be used at high blend rates in standard gasoline engines. This could potentially eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.

Virent’s BioForming(TM) platform technology uses catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery. Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled. These new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

The sugars can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.

The companies have so far collaborated for one year on the research. The BioForming(TM) technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost. Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.

“The technical properties of today’s biofuels pose some challenges to widespread adoption,” Dr. Graeme Sweeney, Shell Executive Vice President Future Fuels and C02 said. “Fuel distribution infrastructure and vehicle engines are being modified to cope but new fuels on the horizon, such as Virent’s, with characteristics similar or even superior to gasoline and diesel, are very exciting.”

Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President said, “Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends. Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs. Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.”

This also reiterates what I have said before: Thermochemical processes such as this are an area to watch. There would be multiple advantages over biological processes for producing fuels. Something tells me that Shell will find this more fertile ground than their investments in Iogen.

March 26, 2008 Posted by | biogasoline, Shell, Virent | 22 Comments

Biogasoline from Shell

I think the general consensus was that the recent claims of agricultural researcher J.C. Bell don’t appear to be too compelling. However, as I mentioned, the conversion of biomass into oil or gasoline should be technically achievable. And today, Bob Rohatensky sent me a link to a story that would appear to have a little more meat to it than Bell’s claims:

Shell and Virent announce collaboration to develop biogasoline

Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc., (Virent (TM)) of Madison, Wisconsin USA, today announced a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol.

The collaboration could herald the availability of new biofuels that can be used at high blend rates in standard gasoline engines. This could potentially eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.

Virent’s BioForming(TM) platform technology uses catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery. Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled. These new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

The sugars can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.

The companies have so far collaborated for one year on the research. The BioForming(TM) technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost. Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.

“The technical properties of today’s biofuels pose some challenges to widespread adoption,” Dr. Graeme Sweeney, Shell Executive Vice President Future Fuels and C02 said. “Fuel distribution infrastructure and vehicle engines are being modified to cope but new fuels on the horizon, such as Virent’s, with characteristics similar or even superior to gasoline and diesel, are very exciting.”

Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President said, “Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends. Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs. Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.”

This also reiterates what I have said before: Thermochemical processes such as this are an area to watch. There would be multiple advantages over biological processes for producing fuels. Something tells me that Shell will find this more fertile ground than their investments in Iogen.

March 26, 2008 Posted by | biogasoline, Shell, Virent | 11 Comments

Biogasoline from Shell

I think the general consensus was that the recent claims of agricultural researcher J.C. Bell don’t appear to be too compelling. However, as I mentioned, the conversion of biomass into oil or gasoline should be technically achievable. And today, Bob Rohatensky sent me a link to a story that would appear to have a little more meat to it than Bell’s claims:

Shell and Virent announce collaboration to develop biogasoline

Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc., (Virent (TM)) of Madison, Wisconsin USA, today announced a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol.

The collaboration could herald the availability of new biofuels that can be used at high blend rates in standard gasoline engines. This could potentially eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.

Virent’s BioForming(TM) platform technology uses catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery. Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled. These new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

The sugars can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.

The companies have so far collaborated for one year on the research. The BioForming(TM) technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost. Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.

“The technical properties of today’s biofuels pose some challenges to widespread adoption,” Dr. Graeme Sweeney, Shell Executive Vice President Future Fuels and C02 said. “Fuel distribution infrastructure and vehicle engines are being modified to cope but new fuels on the horizon, such as Virent’s, with characteristics similar or even superior to gasoline and diesel, are very exciting.”

Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President said, “Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends. Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs. Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.”

This also reiterates what I have said before: Thermochemical processes such as this are an area to watch. There would be multiple advantages over biological processes for producing fuels. Something tells me that Shell will find this more fertile ground than their investments in Iogen.

March 26, 2008 Posted by | biogasoline, Shell, Virent | 77 Comments