Brewing Up a Cure for Oil Addiction

Using the latest advances in genetics, two biofuel companies have developed a way to turn plant matter into fuel that can meet the nation’s energy needs.

In a process similar to brewing beer, the firms use genetically engineered microbes to turn a broth of plant material, water and sugar into a biofuel that can be used to run today’s automobiles.

The designer biofuel — which the companies predict will be entering the mainstream market in three to five years — could be an important road on the map to energy independence.

Bypassing OPEC

With designer biofuels, “we’re not necessarily reliant on obtaining liquid transportation fuels from oil, which generally comes from the Middle East,” Neil Renninger, cofounder and senior vice president ofdevelopment for one of the companies, Amyris Biotech told TechNewsWorld.

While designer biofuels are exotic, biofuels, in general, are not. Gasoline mixtures containing 10 percent ethanol — which is a biofuel — can be pumped at gas stations today, but the new breed of biofuel being pioneered by Amyris and LS9 has some distinct advantages over ethanol.

For one, it takes less energy to produce it.

Like Oil and Water

Ethanol mixes with water, explained LS9’s Senior Director for Corporate Development Gregory Pal.

“When you get done with your fermentation for ethanol, you have to do a distillation process, which is effectively putting a bunch of energy into the system to separate the water from the ethanol,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Since the “renewable petroleum” made by the designer biofuel makers acts like vegetable oil, it doesn’t mix with the water in the fermentation tank so it can be skimmed off the top of the broth with very little energy expenditure, Pal explained.

More Energy Per Gallon

Energy expenditure has been a thorny problem for ethanol produced from corn, where it has been estimated that it takes 20 percent more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than can be obtained from that gallon.

Ethanol made from sugar cane is much more efficient, noted Renninger, with a gallon of sugar ethanol producing 80 percent more energy than it took to produce it.

According to the designer biofuel makers, a gallon of their fuel packs more energy than the same measure of ethanol.

A gallon of gasoline can produce 50 percent more energy than a gallon of ethanol, Pal explained. So if a car can go 30 miles on a gallon of petrol, he noted, it would go 20 miles on a gallon of ethanol.

Since the renewable petroleum LS9 is making is “functionally equivalent to gasoline,” Pal maintained, it would provide the same mileage as a gallon of gasoline.

No Mods Needed

There are other advantages to designer biofuels because of their close similarity to petroleum products.

They can be distributed using existing pipelines, enter existing gas stations without modifying those stations and run in existing auto engines, Pal said.

“In the case of ethanol, if you go beyond the 10 percent blend, it has to be distributed via trucks or rail cars because it can’t go through the pipelines,” he asserted. “You need to do some retrofitting at the station. Then you have to have a flex-fuel vehicle.”

Different Approaches

Although both companies are producing designer fuels, their business plans vary slightly.

LS9 will make a crude oil equivalent that can be refined into gasoline, as well as a diesel product.

Amyris will make products that can go directly from fermentation tank to gas and diesel vehicles, as well as jet planes.

Both companies have plans to open production facilities next year and enter commercial production in three to five years.

Designer Prices?

When they enter the mainstream market, will these designer fuels be priced like designer clothes?

“Our goal is to be competitive at (US)$45 a barrel of oil,” Renninger said. “A lot will depend on where the price of oil is.”

According to a report released Aug. 1 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, crude oil was selling at $77.03 a barrel.

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