Alternative Fuels and Sugar

Amyris first studied the highest performing compounds of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel, then tinkered with the genetic structures of E. coli and yeast to produce bioequivalents, Renninger says, leveraging the same cutting-edge technology previously employed to produce pharmaceutical-quality medicines at commodity-level prices. The company recently announced a deal with the Brazilian sugar and ethanol manufacturer Crystalsev to launch a joint facility south of São Paulo, giving Amyris access to 2 million tons of sugar to feed its mutated strains of yeast. It projects commercial production of some 30 million gallons of diesel as early as 2010, with production of gasoline and jet fuel roughly one and two years behind, respectively.

LS9 plans to open a pilot facility this summer and a 50- to 100-million-gallon plant three years later, producing a drop-in replacement for diesel, as well as a biocrude to be processed in traditional refineries. Rogue scientist J. Craig Venter, who helped lead an international consortium of scientists to map the human genome, has announced plans to engineer bacteria able to create hydrocarbons not just from sugars, but from CO2 pulled straight from the atmosphere.

“If you look at where sugar cane is in Brazil, or at where biomass will be here in the near future, we’re pretty confident that we can compete with oil around the $50-a-barrel range,” Pal says. “The key driver of the cost really is the cost of raw materials.”

For the moment, microbial hydrocarbons, like ethanol, rely on an inexpensive supply of simple sugars to convert into fuel. In the United States, that supply has traditionally come from the starches found in corn kernels, a feedstock with questionable environmental benefits and marginal economic ones. Until technologies exist to easily derive sugars from tough cellulosic material, such as corn’s remaining stalks, leaves and cobs, companies like LS9 and Amyris are likely to feed their fuels with sugar cane—a relatively green source of easy-to-use sucrose, albeit one with limited domestic potential.

As the world continues to consume some 150 million gallons of oil every hour, any potentially game-changing solutions will need not only to work, but to work cheaply and at truly massive scales.

“We could be harvesting on a sustainable basis over a billion tons of dry biomass in the United States if we got serious about it, and that would get us somewhere close to 30 percent of our liquid transportation fuels,” NREL’s McMillan says. “So while sucrose is undoubtedly part of the solution, to really get that huge volume impact, you have to go to those cellulosic feedstocks.”

Source:  Popular Mechanics

One of the reasons that I am concerned with Governor Crist’s plan to acquire so much land from U.S. Sugar Corp. is the importance of sugar in making biofuels until such time as we have cellulosic feedstocks.  The world sugar price will increase as sugar is diverted to biofuels.  Would it be better for the environment for more rainforest to be converted to sugar plantations, or to utilize the land already in sugar plantations?

I do not wish to have governmental officials point at press releases and articles and say “There’s no need for searching for oil!  We have biofuels!”  Well, we already know what happens to biofuels in the event of a drought, flood, or even a damaging frost.  I would prefer that we have a steady, albeit diversified, fuel supply.

I take umbrage at the people blithely asserting that dry biomass has no value.  Yes, it does.  It is used for building soil, preventing erosion, and for wildlife cover.   

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