TR: Developing a new jet fuel has considerable challenges. How did Amyris approach the problem?
JM: We started with the current standard for jets, called jet-A. We asked ourselves if we could generate a fuel with more energy than jet-A and a colder freezing point, which would enable flight over the poles.
We identified a molecule that we believed our core technology could make, and then set out to design microbes to make that product. Now we’ve been able to make it efficiently enough that we believe it would allow us to make a jet-A equivalent with better properties on energy and freezing point with a $40 barrel cost equivalent by 2010 or 2011.
TR: How difficult will it be to get to that point?
JM: In our first project on artemisinin, we had to generate a million-fold improvement in yield. Using that base technology platform, we now need to generate a three- to four-fold improvement on top of that. That would take us to a point where it is cost competitive with fossil fuel.
TR: Does your fuel have better properties than current jet fuel?
JM: The freezing point is -57 ºC, compared to -40 ºC for jet-A. In the lab, we see a higher energy density than jet-A. But I’d rather set an expectation that we’ll be equivalent to jet-A.
TR: How will Amyris fit the new product into existing infrastructure?
JM: We foresee selling our fuels as blends. With ethanol, many infrastructures limit blending to 10 percent. We want to give people the level of blending they see as most reasonable, depending on economics and geography. If consumers want a lower carbon footprint, they should be able to get a 100 percent product.
We’re also trying to be pragmatic. I don’t think we can deliver the volumes the world will need for transportation fuels in the short term, so we’re creating fuels that can be blended.
TR: Regulatory hurdles to certify a jet fuel are high. Have you started that process yet?
JM: Our approach is to participate in a consortium, like the one Boeing has pulled together with Virgin and General Electric. [In April, Boeing, Virgin Atlantic, and GE Aviation announced an environmental partnership.] The consortium is trying to pool resources and technological talent to identify these products and get them to certification. It would like to start testing a viable renewable jet fuel next year.
The consortium brings to the table a clear understanding of the best attributes of a fuel blend, as well as access to labs and financial resources to support the certification process. We’re not yet part of that, but we’re looking into it.