High Yield Ethanol Fermentation from Synthesis Gas

The New York Times is reporting that GM has directly invested in a waste-to-ethanol company in order to help supply biofuels.  Coskata (another Khosla-funded company) has a proprietary combined industrial-biological process for using synthesis gas (CO and H2) to produce ethanol.  Here is the NYT story, by Matthew Wald.

This announcement is interesting to me for several reasons.  First, it turns out I was told all about the Coskata process late last year (though not the GM investment), but I was so busy I didn't tune in sufficiently and so completely missed the significance.  Oops.

Second, in about 2002, I suggested to GM's upper management that they should start thinking of themselves as a "transportation solutions" company rather than just a company that sells cars, and that they invest in providing alternative fuels to ensure that their advanced technology cars would have something to burn. (As the NDA has long since expired, I will connect the dots and point interested readers to an earlier post of mine on producing hydrogen from waste.)  Think W. Edwards Deming and buggy whip manufacturers -- over the next two decades selling cars by themselves is rapidly going to become a losing business model in developed countries as manufacturing practices change and as carbon becomes a bigger issue.  I don't claim that my suggestion five years ago is what got GM started down this road, but I am certainly interested to see that they have made the decision.

The NYT story quotes a number of people commenting on GM's investment, and I think this is the most interesting one, because it is so wrong:

“I don’t really see the logic of it,” said Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington environmental group. “It’s not particularly an industry they know well, or have expertise in.” Companies like G.M., he said, could be more effective by concentrating on the fuel efficiency of their products.

GM is now facing enormous pressure to reduce the carbon emissions from its vehicles, in part by increasing fuel efficiencies.  But that isn't the whole story.  Carbon emissions can fall much faster by switching to new fuels, but the extra cost that goes into building engines able to burn those fuels is wasted without access to the fuel.  My earlier suggestion to GM was in the context of using hydrogen as that fuel, but the argument is the same for any other fuel.  Without a sufficient supply of the fuel, why would anyone bother to pay extra for a vehicle that could have lower emissions if only the fuel were available? 

The Coskata website is rather thin on details, but basically they describe a microbe that can convert CO and H2 to ethanol on the fly.  I am absolutely certain the NDA covering the conversation in which I learned about this is still in effect, which limits my ability to say more than what has been published elsewhere.

What I can say is that, if the technology proves to be as efficient and versatile as is claimed, this strategy makes a great deal of sense.  From the NYT story:

If it can be done economically, the Coskata process has three large advantages over corn-based ethanol, according to General Motors. First, it uses a cheaper feedstock that would not compete with food production. Second, the feedstock is available all over the country, a crucial point since ethanol cannot be shipped from the corn belt to areas of high gasoline demand in existing pipelines.

As I have written in this space many times (see, for example, "The Need for Fuels Produced Using Synthetic Biology"), getting away from competition with food is the most important next step in increasing biofuel production.  Diversifying feedstocks to include waste products is critical.

Finally, it is interesting to speculate about the possibility of combining Coskata's synthesis gas eating microbe with the non-fermentative biofuel synthesis I wrote about last week.  Fermentation produces lots of stuff besides ethanol, and ethanol is toxic to most microbes above minimal concentrations.  Besides, ethanol sucks as a biofuel.  So if you could patch the biosynthesis technology that Gevo (another Khosla-funded company, hmmm...) just licensed from UCLA into a bug that eats synthesis gas, you would have a generalized method for taking any organic trash and converting it via synthesis gas into many useful materials, starting with fuels.  Put all together and what do you get?

Say it all together now: "Distributed Biological Manufacturing" (PDF).