green diesel, just as it was for ethanol.”
In December, Amyris reached an agreement to build its first farnesene plant, a 100-million-liter-per-year facility that will be constructed inside the newly built Boa Vista sugar and ethanol mill in Goiás. As part of the transaction, Amyris agreed to buy a 40 percent stake in the mill from its owner, Grupo São Martinho. Its total payment, around $80 million in cash and stock, was the highest price ever paid for milling capacity in Brazil, according to São Martinho’s president, Fábio Venturelli. Amyris wanted control over the construction of its first big plant, to make sure it goes smoothly. But eventually the company plans to barter its technology for access to sugarcane juice, a less expensive approach. The idea is to have Brazil’s sugar mills pay to retrofit their plants while Amyris contributes its genetically modified yeast. Amyris would then sell the farnesene and divide the profits with the mill.
Although the commercial terms may be complicated, the basic pitch Amyris is making isn’t: in an industry that in many ways is low tech (more than half of Brazil’s sugarcane is still hacked down by machete-wielding day laborers), it promises to turn mills into futuristic biorefineries capable of turning out chemicals and fuels more valuable than sugar or ethanol. Many Brazilian companies have been thinking along similar lines. When Venturelli became São Martinho’s CEO in 2008 and first saw the blueprints for the Boa Vista mill, he noticed that someone had written a note on a blank area. It read, “This space for future sugarcane-based chemical.”
Plenty of questions remain, though. “All our companies are searching to be at the forefront of the fuels market, and they see in Amyris the chance for technology transfer,” says Alfred Szwarc, a technical advisor to UNICA, Brazil’s largest sugarcane association. “But since we don’t know the price or the operational costs, for now it’s a lot of speculation.”
The major uncertainty is how Amyris’s yeast will perform under industrial conditions. It will be one of the first times synthetic biology has reached such a scale, and the process is certain to pose engineering problems no other company has faced before. One concern: wild yeast strains could ride into the fermentation tanks along with the sugarcane juice. In sterile lab experiments, that’s not a problem. But in a sugarcane mill, yeast that doesn’t make farnesene could easily overwhelm the lab-created variety.
Recent developments in the artemisinin project also suggest that costs could be an issue. Drug maker Sanofi Aventis, which agreed to handle commercial production of the antimalarial, says it ran into unexpected obstacles and now plans to produce the drug for $350 to $400 per kilo. That is close to the average price of the plant-derived version, but it’s three to four times as expensive as Keasling has promised in media interviews.
In Brazil, Amyris’s dreams of transforming the global fuel business may need to be deferred, at least for a time. The company’s first facility may not produce farnesene cheaply enough to compete head to head with diesel. Instead, the farnesene produced by the São Martinho mill will initially be sold to the consumer-products market, where it may command prices far higher than what’s paid for diesel. (It can be used, among other things, as a moisturizing agent for lipsticks or antiaging creams.)
That means Amyris’s scientists may have to wait a while longer to change the world. But Melo says the company has not backed away from its goal of becoming a major force in the fuels market. “We are all about impact,” he says. “Saving thousands of children is impact. With fuels, it’s scale. If we can’t scale our contribution to CO2 [emissions] or green production, we will be irrelevant.”
Antonio Regalado is a contributing correspondent for Science in Latin America and a former editor at TR. He is based in Sao Paulo.