Renninger says Amyris hasn’t given up entirely on making fuel. The company has managed to manufacture biofuels in low volumes; about 150 buses in one Brazilian city run on its products. But the buses require only hundreds of thousands of liters of fuel a year, and it would take billions of liters to make an impact in the fuel industry, says Renninger. The company is now counting on partners Total (the French oil firm) and Cosan (a Brazilian ethanol and gas company) to build larger biofuel plants. “The amount of capital you need for one billion liters’ worth of capacity is huge,” says Renninger. “We want to leverage somebody who has a balance sheet that allows it to access capital at a low cost. That’s not us at this point.”
Amyris still needs to demonstrate that its process works economically at a new 50-million-liter plant the company is building this year. It hopes it can sell fragrances and specialty chemicals at higher prices than it could command for biofuels, potentially making low-volume production profitable. That’s a risky strategy—the specialty chemicals industry is highly competitive. And production of even a few million liters of product using microörganisms can be challenging. Last year, issues such as power shortages and contamination left Amyris struggling to achieve high enough yields at one of its contract manufacturing facilities.
In the meantime, the company also needs to keep the troops interested in products that don’t have the world-changing potential of biofuels. Some employees have taken up squalane as an environmental cause; the chemical is usually produced from shark livers. To drum up interest in developing the synthesized version, they passed out “save the sharks” fliers in the Amyris labs.
Renninger, who helped dream up Amyris over Thai takeout and bottles of wine a decade ago, says the company wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he and his cofounders had based it in on making moisturizers. But to him, the story isn’t over. “We view squalane as just a step along the way,” he says. “Is it important in its own right? Yes. Is it what we want to be remembered for? No. The goals are much loftier than that.”