Amyris is also working on a pilot production plant that it expects to complete by the end of next year, and it also hopes to have commercial products available within three or four years. (See “A Better Biofuel.”) Both companies say they want to further engineer their bacteria to be more efficient, and they’re working to optimize the overall production process. “The potential for biofuels is huge, and I think theirs [LS9’s] is one possible solution,” Renninger says.
Indeed, many technology approaches are needed, says Craig Venter, cofounder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, of Rockland, MD, which is also applying biotechnology to fuel production. “We need a hundred, a thousand solutions, not just one,” he says. “I know at least a dozen groups and labs trying to make biofuels from bacteria with sugar.”
Venter’s company is also working on engineering microbes to produce fuel. The company recently received a large investment from the oil giant BP to study the microbes that live on underground oil supplies; the idea is to see if the microbes can be engineered to provide cleaner fuel. Another project aims to tinker with the genome of palm trees–the most productive source of oil for biodiesel–to make them a less environmentally damaging crop.
LS9’s current work uses sugar derived from corn kernels as the food source for the bacteria–the same source used by ethanol-producing yeast. To produce greater volumes of fuel, and to not have energy competing with food, both approaches will need to use cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, as the feedstock. Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.
Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds, because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.
The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of replacing 30 percent of current petroleum use with fuels from renewable biological sources by 2030, and del Cardayre says he feels that’s easily achievable.