LS9, "The Renewable Petroleum" Company, has just hired a former oil executive as its new CEO. The promise of direct microbial fuel production is so great that this news even made The Huffington Post. Why all the sudden buzz? The answer is that this technology is really quite new, but is making great strides. Moreover, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (see "The Need for Fuels Produced Using Synthetic Biology"), the economics of producing fuels from microbes is so radically different from what we are used to that it will upend our notions industrial infrastructure. That said, it will still take some time before all the impacts are fully appreciated.
Last Thursday, I did a short interview for the series Questions for the Future, produced by CNBC Europe/Asia in association with Shell, during which the host was somewhat perplexed about why there was not yet more widespread discussion of this technology. At The Huffington Post, David Roberts starts his post with a note of skepticism:
Picture a liquid fuel that is derived from the same feedstocks as cellulosic ethanol (switchgrass, sugar cane, corn stover) but contains 50% more energetic content and is made via a process that uses 65% less energy.
Unlike cellulosic ethanol, this fuel can be distributed via existing oil pipelines rather than gas-hogging trucks and trains, dispensed through existing gas stations rather than specialized pumps, and used in existing engines rather than modified "flex-fuel" engines.
In short, it is a biofuel that can be substituted directly and immediately for gas or diesel, on a gallon-for-gallon basis.
Sounds pretty good, eh? Too good to be true?
Which illustrates one reason why this topic isn't so much in the news. It does sound too good to be true. But it is quite real, with Amyris Biotechnologies on track to produce jet fuel from microbes by 2011 at an equivalent cost of US$ 40 per barrel.
Another interesting thread to this discussion is the potential internal conflict generated in "Greens" by the notion of reducing carbon emissions ("Good!") using genetically modified organisms ("Bad!"). I've been working this idea into an essay about laying the foundations for a bio-economy, but Roberts makes it explicit in his post; "I know there are greens who feel creepy about genetic engineering, and they probably won't like the fact that LS9 is trying to patent a life form. But I don't really share those concerns, so I'll just skip them." No worries. Just like that. I am not so certain Greenpeace et al. will follow along so quietly.
In the press release from LS9, new CEO Robert Walsh says:
After years of leadership roles in the traditional petroleum industry and responsibility over all aspects of the hydrocarbon supply chain, I can see clearly how LS9's products will fit into existing infrastructure and deliver significant value to partners and consumers compared with other biofuel alternatives. LS9 has the opportunity to fundamentally change the transportation fuel equation, which makes me incredibly excited to join this talented team.
While it's true that these engineered synthetic fuels will likely find first use within existing distribution channels, it is the potential for distributed manufacturing that truly changes the game. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for this part of the story to work its way into the broader conversation.
Finally, here is additional coverage of the LS9 announcement at GreenCarCongress.