It seems like every day another microbe-based biofuel startup announces its presence, and gets its 15 minutes of fame. However, only a few of these startups are anywhere near ready to bring their technology to scale. It is important to focus on these companies, because that step – bringing the technology to scale – is the biggest challenge, the highest hurdle to clear.
This week, by opening up a pilot plant in California, Amyris hopes to show that they can do just that. They aren’t the only ones this far along the path to commercialization – Petrosun, Solazyme, Greenfuel and Sapphire are hard at work trying to grow algae in a variety of ways.
What’s Amyris’ angle? First of all, they aren't growing algae, but rather yeast. They are experts when it comes to customized genetic engineering. They started out as a pharmaceutical company, mass producing an anti-malaria drug. They did so by tweaking the metabolic pathways in their yeast - essentially using the organisms as factories, and rearranging the machines to build the exact chemical they wanted. Now they are applying that technique to biofuel. Rather than simply picking organisms with high fat content (which is what most of the algae startups are doing), Amyris is designing a yeast strain that will make a proprietary molecule that they have chosen specifically because it will make a good fuel.
Now that the pilot plant is operational, Amyris expects another year and half before they start full scale commercial production. Until then, it looks like one of the issues they will be focusing on is sourcing the sugars they need to feed the yeast. They have recently partnered with a Brazilian company, Crystalsev, which currently operates ethanol plants. Crystalsev already has plenty of feedstock (which they use to make ethanol), and they also have the infrastructure necessary to export and distribute the fuel.
Toxic chemicals ethylene glycol and propylene glycol have been the preferred engine coolants for decades. Glycerol (glycerin) was once used as a coolant, but it was expensive and it's a weaker freezing point depression ruled it out.
This may all change soon. Glycerin is a natural byproduct of biodiesel, so while biodiesel is starting to be produced in large quantities, so is glycerin. This new abundance of glycerin has made it cost competitive with its more toxic counterparts.
SAE International did an extensive evaluation of glycerin's performance in heat transfer, corrosion protection, freeze point, thermal stability and toxicity. They concluded that glycerin should be reconsidered as a less toxic base for antifreeze.
I like the idea of reducing waste by coming up with uses for a byproduct. Eliminating or reducing waste in manufacturing will need to be a star player in our move towards a cleaner planet or we'll never get there. Plus a reduction in a product's toxicity is always a step in the right direction.
Image via rrelam
Fill your gas tank with fungus fuel? It sounds far-fetched, but it could be a promising alternative to fossil fuel. A Montana State University professor has found a fungus from the Patagonia rainforest that produces a new type of diesel fuel. Other simple organisms such as algae have been known to make chemicals similar to hydrocarbons in transport fuel, but this fungus could do even better than that.
Emeritus plant pathologist Gary Strobel, who 15 years ago discovered the fungus that contained the anticancer drug Taxol, found that this new discovery, called Gliocladium roseum, is capable of producing gases. Further testing of the fungus revealed a number of compounds normally associated with diesel fuel, which is obtained from crude oil. The initial observations of the fungus' output, which Prof. Strobel calls â€œmyco-dieselâ€ were published in this month's issue of Microbiology. The abstract can be read here.
The gas composition of G. roseum included hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. A spoonful of the stuff could run a diesel engine with further refining or modifications to it. â€œThe results were totally unexpected and very exciting,â€ says Prof. Strobel. â€œAlmost every hair on my arms stood on end.â€
Prof. Strobel travels the world looking for plants that may contain beneficial microbes and first collected a variety of specimens, including the G. roseum, from the Patagonia rainforest in 2002. He kept the G. roseum in storage until last year when he finally had time to work on it. While he hopes that myco-diesel could be an option for those seeking alternatives to other biofuels like ethanol, the big question remains of whether the microbe can be scaled up to commercial levels.
The findings have led Strobel to even speculate that organisms such as G. roseum may be responsible for the worldâ€™s crude oil deposits. This is quite a departure from the traditional theory â€“ that oil is only produced when decaying organic matter is subjected to pressure and millions of years. An intriguing possibility, but for the time being scientists have their hands full trying to figure out how to turn these volatile, oily vapors into biofuel.
Via NPR, The Guardian, Montana State University
In a move that seems to fall somewhere between greenwashing and legitimate green progress, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority recently announced that its Tri-Rail regional transit lines would be running 8 out of its 10 trains on a nearly pure blend of biofuels. Let’s consider the pro’s and con’s.
First of all, any press is good press, as they say. Especially when we’re talking about a public institution such as a transit authority, whose endorsement of biodiesel seems more significant and far-reaching than, say, Willie Nelson’s. Plus, the fuel is cleaner than standard diesel. It emits less carbon monoxide, fewer particulates and pollutes less overall. If biodiesel spills and soaks into the ground, it is far more benign than old fashioned diesel. And, surprisingly, biodiesel is currently 30 cents/gallon cheaper than the competition.
My main complaint here is that the biodiesel comes from palm and soy sources. This might make some sense if the palm oil is produced locally (though I’m not even sure it does), but food crops-turned fuel crops such as these have been largely condemned by the green community as unsustainable solutions which aggravate food prices across the globe.
As an aside, the SFRTA’s report mentions that Florida is one of the only places where such biofuels could be implemented, because of its temperate climate. I’m assuming they mean that this biodiesel would not function at lower temperatures, perhaps due to congealing or freezing. Perhaps one of you readers can shed light on the issue…
Via Gas 2.0, SFRTA