As I have said before, an ideal biofuel would be one that phases out of water, and is therefore much less energy intensive to separate. One of the big energy sinks in ethanol production involves an energy intensive separation of ethanol from water. If ethanol was insoluble it would phase out of solution and could be skimmed off and separated for a fraction of the energy input.
This is the sort of model that companies like LS9 and Virent have adopted. They are using microorganisms to produce longer-chain hydrocarbons that not only are much easier to separate from water, but also have higher energy density. I have commented in the past that this is ‘Holy Grail’ stuff, but also would be technically challenging. But I think companies pursuing this line of research have a real shot at being ultimately successful.
Add Amyris to the list of companies competing for the Holy Grail. They also have a twist to their business plan that should give them an advantage over their competitors. Amyris has been mentioned on this blog a couple of times previously, but not in the same kind of detail as LS9. This post will rectify that by highlighting what they are doing.
First, what are they doing? In their own words:
Amyris technology makes it possible to alter the metabolic pathways of microorganisms such as yeasts, creating living factories that produce molecules with practical applications. While reading, writing, and analyzing the DNA of microbes once took years, Amyris can now reprogram microorganisms and test our ability to produce desired molecules in days to weeks. Our proprietary technology transforms plant-based feedstocks, such as sugarcane, into 50,000 different isoprenoids –molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications.
So you have heard similar claims before. However, they are quite a bit farther along than many would-be biofuel companies. They just announced the ‘opening’ (I presume that means they aren’t starting up just yet) of their first pilot plant in Emeryville, California:
Amyris Opens Pilot Plant to Produce Renewable Diesel Fuel
California Facility Marks Step in Developing and Commercializing Viable Alternative to Petroleum Fuels
EMERYVILLE, Calif. – November 12, 2008 – Amyris Biotechnologies, Inc. today announced that it has opened its first pilot plant producing No Compromise™ renewable diesel fuel. The pilot plant, which was ompleted in September, is an important milestone for Amyris towards its goal of developing and commercializing its sustainable, hydrocarbon‐based fuel, which it expects to bring to market in 2010.
The plant serves as a technical gateway to commercialization in Brazil and other manufacturing locations. It will demonstrate Amyris’ technology in scaled down process equipment that is representative of full ommercial scale operations; generate essential engineering data for designing Amyris’ full scale plants; and produce product samples for performance testing.
Amyris’ diesel is characterized as a No Compromise™ fuel because it is designed to be a scalable, low‐cost enewable fuel with performance attributes that equal or exceed those of petroleum‐sourced fuels and urrently available biofuels.
Other attributes innclude:
• Superior environmental performance: Preliminary analyses show that Amyris diesel fuel has virtually no sulfur and signifiantly reduced NOx, particulate, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon exhaust emissions relative to petroleum‐sourced diesel fuel.
• High blending rates: Because Amyris renewable diesel contains many of the properties of petroleum diesel, Amyris can blend the fuel at high levels ‐‐ up to 50 pecent ‐‐ compared with 10‐20 percent for conventional biodiesel and ethanol.
• Compatibility with existing infrastructure: Unlike many commercially available biofuels, Amyris expects to distribute its renewable diesel through the existing fuel distribution and storage infrastructure, thus speeding time to market while minimizing costs.
• Adaptive: Amyris can produce its fuels from a broad range of feedstock including sugar cane and cellulosic biomass. It is starting with Brazilian sugar cane because it provides the most environmentally sound, economical, and scalable source of energy available today.
“This new diesel fuel has all the characteristics to make an important contribution toward solving our global transportation energy and climate crisis,” said John Melo, chief executive officer of Amyris. “The opening of ur pilot plant is a significant business marker for us, taking us one step closer to bringing our diesel fuel to market.”
In parallel with this effort, Amyris will open a larger pilot plant in Campinas, Brazil in the spring of 2009 here it will finalize processes for Brazilian operations; transfer the technology to manufacturing sites in Brazil; and provide ongoing support for optimizing production in Brazil.
Earlier this year, Amyris established Amyris‐Crystalsev Biofuels, a Brazilian venture in partnership with Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol distributors and marketers, to work with Brazilian sugarcane mills and fuel producers to scale up production of Amyris diesel fuel. SantelisaVale, the second‐largest ethanol nd sugar producer in Brazil has committed two million tons of sugar cane crushing capacity for the initial roduction of Amyris diesel, including its flagship Santelisa mill.
Amyris’ proprietary synthetic biology platform enables Amyris scientists to engineer microorganisms such as yeast so that they can transform sugar into 50,000 different molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications. Amyris is working on the development and commercialization of everal of these molecules to provide a range of renewable products, including diesel fuel, jet fuel and specialty chemicals.
The platform has already proven successful through the development of a strain of yeast to enable the production of a precursor to artemisinin, a key ingredient in anti‐malarial drugs, at significantly lower cost than can be achieved with conventional technologies. This technology was developed as a not‐for‐profit initiative, and has been transferred to sanofi‐aventis.
Amyris is applying a proprietary synthetic biology platform to create No Compromise™ products ‐‐ low cost renewable fuels and chemicals that are intended to be environmentally friendly, compatible with the existing infrastructure, and have performance attributes comparable to petroleum‐based fuels. Amyris has also developed a technology to produce a second supply of an anti‐malarial drug. Founded in 2003, Amyris has raised over $120 million in equity funding to‐date, including investments from Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, TPG Biotech, and DAG Ventures. Amyris has over 200 employees and facilities in meryville, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Campinas, Brazil. More information about Amyris is available at http://www.amyris.com/.
The really interesting aspect of their business model is the Brazil angle. The U.S. currently has an import tariff on Brazilian ethanol. However, that tariff does not cover other biofuels coming from Brazil. By utilizing low-cost Brazilian sugar to make their biofuel, they stand a good chance of meeting their cost projects. Further, by making diesel – which is looking to be in tighter demand than gasoline for years to come – they are getting into a market with much better profit margins than ethanol has.
This, and some other highlights from a Greentech Media story:
Amyris, for instance, will be able to produce a form of diesel that it will sell at the wholesale level for $2 a gallon or less, or around the same price as conventional fossil diesel, said CEO John Melo.
“It will be around the same price as regular petrol diesel, but it will produce 80 percent less greenhouse gases, provide a 10 percent reduction in NOx (nitrogen gases) and provide the same or better performance,” Melo said. “And with zero sulfur.”
The company’s jet fuel, which will replace kerosene-based fuels, will produce 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases than the regular stuff without denting performance or mileage, he said.
The big test for Amyris will arrive in about two years. The company has created joint ventures in Brazil to create biorefineries on sugar plantations where genetically engineered yeast will feast on freshly harvested sugar. The resulting fuel will then be loaded onto ships and brought to the U.S. By 2010, Amyris hopes to be producing 200 million gallons a year out of its first plant and erecting more plants.
Melo also pointed out that because Amyris isn’t producing ethanol (an alcohol) in Brazil but a hydrocarbon (a molecule includes hydrogen and carbons), the ethanol tariff on Brazilian ethanol doesn’t apply.
Promising stuff. To me it looks like they have a good chance of being successful.
Footnote: As is the case with LS9 and Virent, there is no Amyris stock that one can buy. It is a privately held venture.