Saturday, April 26, 2008

Microbes to transform into molecular oil refineries to produce low-carbon equivalents of gasoline

California startup Amyris engineers microbes to transform them into molecular oil refineries, digesting sugar to produce low-carbon equivalents of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Now in a bid to commercialize its technology, Amryis (web site http://www.amyrisbiotech.com/ ) has struck a deal to create a joint venture with Brazilian ethanol giant Crystalev to produce biodiesel from sugarcane.

Some three-quarters of Brazil's cars run on ethanol made from domestic sugarcane but the country imports diesel. "This is a game changer," Amyris co-founder Jack Newman told Green Wombat this week at Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference in Pasadena. "It gives us the ability to make a difference in terms of scale by tapping into existing agricultural land and Brazil's ethanol infrastructure. It's a great step forward for Amyris, and Brazil gets the option of producing ethanol or diesel from same resources."

Most biodiesel today is made from soybeans or recycled vegetable oil and does not offer the same performance as petroleum-based diesel. The biodiesel produced by Amyris' custom-designed microbes matches that performance and can be used in existing engines while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent, according to Newman, a microbiologist who is Amyris' senior vice president of research.

If Amyris, an Emeryville-based company backed by marquee venture capitalists Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, can replicate its laboratory success in the field the environmental benefits could substantial.

For Brazil to become self-sufficient in diesel it would otherwise have to plant more soy, which means cutting down more of the Amazon rainforest that already is being destroyed to plant soy destined for North American dinner tables. Sugarcane grown on reclaimed pasture land and distilled with Amyris technology can produce ten times as much diesel per acre as soy. "You won't have to displace crops into the rainforest area," Newman says.

Production of the Brazilian biodiesel is expected to begin in 2010 if all goes according to plan and the necessary regulatory approvals are obtained.

"One of the reasons Brazil is so excited about the technology is that this gives them a biodiesel option with this great infrasture they already have," Newman says. "It could provide them with 90 billion gallons a year without having to reclaim new land."

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