Late last month, Amyris Biotechnologies opened a plant in Campinas, Brazil, to demonstrate large-scale production of hydrocarbons from sugarcane processed using its engineered microbes. Fuel from the plant will be used for demonstrations and testing in Brazil and other countries. Amyris hopes to take advantage of Brazil’s existing biofuel infrastructure, which has been focused on ethanol, to produce diesel and other chemicals to sell in the country and possibly in the United States and Europe in 2011. The demonstration plant has a capacity of more than 10,000 gallons a year.
Brazil is attractive to Amyris because it is the second-largest producer of ethanol in the world; while the company will make hydrocarbons, not ethanol, it will use the country’s existing infrastructure for growing and processing sugarcane. Amyris, which is based in Emeryville, CA, uses the tools of a new field called synthetic biology to reengineer microbes, including yeast that can ferment sugar to produce hydrocarbons instead of ethanol. Rather than licensing its hydrocarbon-producing yeast to another company, Amyris plans to purchase sugar mills and convert them in order to use its microbes to produce fuels and other chemicals.
The company’s diesel fuel works in today’s engines and matches the performance of petroleum diesel. Burning the fuel produces no sulfur, less carbon monoxide, and fewer nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other emissions, compared with petroleum diesel. Government regulation and carbon taxes may help the company compete, but its goal is a fuel that matches or beats the price of oil–about $60 a barrel. “The greenness of the fuel might drive a few people to it, but we need to be cost competitive,” says Neil Renninger, founder and chief technical officer of Amyris. The biggest expense in making the fuel is the feedstock, which is why Amyris chose Brazil and sugarcane instead of corn and the United States, says Renninger.
As ethanol feedstock, corn costs $1.20 per gallon and sugarcane just $0.85. And sugarcane processing is also significantly cheaper because the fibrous waste left after the sugars are extracted for fermentation is burned to produce electricity. While corn ethanol processing is a net electricity consumer, sugarcane ethanol is a net electricity exporter. “The net energy invested in sugarcane ethanol is not very high and leads to huge gains relative to the gain from corn,” says Lester Lave, a professor of economics and codirector of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.