Investors betting on biological future for biofuels - We can 'grow' energy!

October 13 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: 2011   Rating: 7 Hot

Growing energy?
Can we grow our own energy resources by feeding power plant carbon emissions to algae and bacteria? We have featured videos by Juan Enriquez and Steve Jurvetson- on the feasibility of growing energy using the power of biology. Now mainstream investors are starting to bet that this future might be closer than we imagine.

Investments are now flowing into next generation biofuels that should surpass corn ethanol. But if we expect to ‘grow’ energy then we need to make choices. When do we tap the power of plants versus algae and bacteria? Will we train our students to become chemical engineers or biologists and synthetic bio-engineers?

Our world is built upon ancient bioenergy
Most of our energy resources come via biology. Coal is ancient biomass- likely decomposed ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. We power our world by blowing up these hydrogen-carbon chemical bonds in our power plants and combustion engines. It is cheap but also inefficient and dirty because we release ancient carbon.

Two paths forward – chemistry and biology
Biofuels are expanding along two paths. One future is based on creating fuels using chemical engineering processes. Biodiesel uses a process known as transesterification which exchanges molecules from fatty acids (like vegetable and oil oil) to create usuable fuels. Corn ethanol uses a process known as fermentation. Chemical conversion processes usually tap oil (fatty acids) from plants, fruit seeds or industrial waste streams.

The other future uses the power of biological energy conversion. This is the world of carbon-eating algae that create biodiesel and hydrogen producing bacteria. Biological energy production usually taps carbon emissions or waste streams (e.g. carbohydrates and sewage) as its feedstock.

Advocates of chemically driven biofuels say they offer scalability and reliability. Biology advocates want to transform carbon emissions into a resource for algae and bacteria and think their solution has a lower cost advantage, safety and fewer waste byproducts.

While there are many reasons to imagine profitable biologically driven bioenergy solutions within five years, we have yet to see a company overcome the challenges of scaling up production. So the mood among investors and analysts is ‘cautiously optimistic..!

Latest announcements contributing the bioenergy hype

- Globes media outlet is now reporting that Israel’s cleantech venture capital arm AquAgro (of Transbiodiesel Ltd) and B. Gaon Holdings Ltd. are investing in an undisclosed US company which reportedly has $10 billion in annual sales.
- Israel-based “Seambiotic” has raised money to advance algae based biofuels
Bill Gates has invested in Sapphire
- Other investments have been made in cellulosic biofuel producers like POET, Mascoma, Novozyme and a half dozen other bio energy startups including PetroSun, Imperium, Aurora Biofuels, LiveFuels, and Solazyme.

Companies to Watch: Aquaflow Bionomic, Virent, Nanologix, Inc., LS9, Renewable Synthetic Fuel (RSFuel), Amyris Biotechnologies, Synthetic Genomics, Coskata, Solix, Gulf Ethanol, Verenium, Iogen, Agrivida, Eirzyme, BioHydrogen (UK), UOP, and BioMaxx.

-‘Energy majors’ such as Shell and Chevron are also leveraging their bets against traditional chemical biofuels refining for biologically driven processes.

Israeli article Published by Globes – on October 12, 2008

Image designed by The Energy

Comment Thread (4 Responses)

  1. One example I’ve begun following is Ever Cat Fuels, a bio-diesel start-up in Minnesota. I think the modular nature of their Mcgyan process provides opportunity for individual users that other processes don’t seem as well suited to accomadate. Their pilot plant should begin operation early in 2009.

    Posted by: Will   October 14, 2008
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  2. Re: Will

    Ever Cat Fuels wasn’t on my radar. Thanks. Looks like a solid process. Nice combination of qualities on the catalyst and flex fuel capability.

    This falls under the ‘chemistry’ path towards biofuels. Clear advantages are scalability, reliability and sometimes cost (that’s where the process comes in!) These types of companies are sure to grow in the years ahead. I’ll be watching to see how Ever Cat evolves…!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 14, 2008
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  3. Yeah, Garry, evolution has already produced great “nano-factories” to produce fuel yet we want to build them from scratch. That’s fine, I love where nanotech is going but we need to tap into nature again and reap the benefits of millions of years of tweaking and fine tuning that has produced these amazing machines.

    This article about using E. Coli to Generate Biofuel, is a great example of what you’re talking about. I don’t know if you’ve already mentioned that or not. I am confident more ingenuity like this will arise more often, too.

    Posted by: Covus   October 14, 2008
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  4. Covus

    Thanks for the link—yes, that is exactly the example of bio energy that hopes to unseat chemical engineering as a lower cost / carbon eating system. It’s not going to be easy or happen overnight, but as you’ve hinted. These types of nanoscale breakthroughs are likely to be more frequent in the years ahead. Thanks for the post!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 14, 2008
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