Archive for bioenergy


The Future of Biofuels: Environmental Innovation Fatigue for Environmental Advances?

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The federal government has set bold and challenging goals for future increases in the production of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Seeking to curb our dependence on foreign oil as well as fossil fuels in general, our nation is encouraging the development of fuels from biological sources. Biofuels, diesel and gasoline made from renewable sources such as agricultural waste, forest sources, and algae, are a top priority and are the subject of extensive government-funded research and tax credits. Biofuels are a rich source of innovation and show an explosion in patent activity in the past 3 years.

Unfortunately, biofuels are also facing daunting challenges from uncertainty in federal regulations and tax policy that threatens to bring many innovations to a halt as industry puts many developments on hold due. The uncertainty in the environment–the regulatory and tax environment created by the government–is actually hindering many biofuel projects aimed aimed at enhancing the environment in the long run. This was the sentiment from several speakers in the midst of biofuels innovation in sessions at BioPro Expo 2011, a major conference on biofuels and forest bioproducts, being held in Atlanta, Georgia, March 14-16. Concern about government barriers to commercialization of biofuels advances was a repeated theme.

One example is federal regarding the definition of “renewable” for those seeking federal incentives for the use of renewable sources of fuels. Municipal solid waste (MSW) has a large component of plant-based materials such as paper and food waste, and is one of the most available and commercially attractive biofuel sources. The technology is proven, the raw material is available and economically feasible, and projects are ready to roll–except they have largely been put on hold until the federal government rules on whether MSW can be counted as “renewable” or not. Then there are strict new rules on boiler operation (the Industrial Boiler Maximum Achievable Technology, or BI MACT, rule) throwing another wrench and major cost burden on the backs of those with boilers generating energy from biomass sources. There are a host of other rules and conflicting definitions and policies adding to uncertainty, risk, and cost in commercializing biofuels. For the innovator, it is a challenging era with the potential of innovation fatigue from external or environmental factors.

Let’s hope that the rich opportunities being uncovered in biofuels can be commercialized rapidly and that the barriers to innovation can be reduced.

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Chemical Engineers and Innovation: A View from the AIChE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah

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I’m back from the week-long Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Salt Lake City, Utah, where over 4,200 engineers from around the country and many other nations were gathered. Hundreds of technical papers were presented from researchers and leaders pursuing advanced in energy, biotech, materials, nanotechnology, chemicals, and related fields. Energy was probably the biggest theme, but bio-related R&D was extremely hot as well.

The Division that I Chair, Forest Bioproducts Division of AIChE, had over 50 papers presented on topics related to biofuels and bioproducts from plant resources such as cellulosic or lignocellulosic biomass. We learned about advanced in biomass gasification, in fermentation of biomass to product fuels, in managing feedstock, in converting syngas or pyrolysis products into value-added chemicals, and many other topics.

I was especially impressed with a keynote speech from Ann Lee, Senior Vice President of Process Research and Development at Genentech, the biotech company that is now part of the Roche Group. Ann outlined Genentech’s pioneering work as the first biotech IPO, the first company to market a recombinant DNA drug, the first company to develop at humanized therapeutic antibody (Xolair), the first company to develop a therapeutic antibody for cancer (Rituxan), and the first in many other areas. They were paving new ground time after time, taking on huge risks and uncertainties, and facing the numerous barriers that innovators continue to face on their way to success. Through it all, Genentech managed to cultivate and maintain a culture of innovation with commitment at the top to drive past or through the barriers to achieve success in so many areas.

The development of personalized antibodies and antibody fragments for very specific and successful cancer treatments has involved visionary efforts that tapped the expertise of thinkers across multiple boundaries, exemplifying what can be done when a country eradicates internal “not invented here” syndrome. Herceptin, the first personalized custom antibody treatment for cancer (HER2+ cancer cells in breast cancer) is a remarkable advance, as is the related Lucentis drug for treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Chemists and chemical engineers working together made these innovations possible, and I applaud Genentech for their innovation success.

One innovation-related tidbit I picked up in a session of the meeting that I chaired for the Management Division concerns resources to help start-ups. The Wayne Brown Institute ( has developed a screening system based on 15 criteria that have proven remarkably effective in gauging the health of a start-up. In one study, 80% of those that scored high on their assessment were still in business 10 years later – a remarkable statistic. I’ll be looking into this resource in more detail in the future.

Say, do you know which university led the nation last year in terms of high-tech start-ups generated? MIT? Close! It was actually the University of Utah, with 23. Nearby BYU had 11, is remarkable given its much smaller level of funding for R&D (they typically lead or are in the top 3 in terms of start-ups per dollar of research). Interesting. I saw plenty of evidence of active innovation in the Utah area. One of the highlights of the visit for me was a tour of Ceramatec in Salt Lake City, an innovation company developing ionic ceramic membranes that support fuel cells and other advanced products.

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Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Amyris Biotechnologies logoIn my ongoing work on analyzing the intellectual property landscape in biofuels, one of the most impressive companies I’ve run across is Amyris, a renewable products company whose clever use of synthetic biology goes far beyond biofuels. Amyris was founded by Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, and Jack D. Newman who met at Berkeley and founded Amyris in 2003, headquartered in Emeryville, California. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they first developed their technology under a non-profit initiative to provide a reliable and affordable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. It was viewed as a long-shot, but they found success that paved the way for the growth of the company into other areas. They are now developing new microbial strains that can produce other useful molecules from renewable feedstocks. This industrial synthetic biology platform is providing alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. he extremely useful molecule farnesene is an important part of their business. It provides a compound that can be used to produce flavors, perfumes, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel, and other products.

This week Amyris created a stir by announcing a record number of deals and partnerships for a single week (a record among bioenergy companies, according to Biofuels Digest). These partnerships include P&G, Total, Soliance, Cosan, M&G Finanziaria, and Shell:

Amyris has taken it up a notch with a series of stunners surrounding its synthetic farsenene, which it has named Biofene – the first product that Amyris is seeking to produce at commercial scale.

Beyond its success this week with Biofene announcements, which are the basis for the P&G, M&G and Soliance partnerships — there are the broader arrangements with Cosan to develop a platform in renewable chemicals, and the equity agreement with Total that will provide needed capital as well as a broader platform for Amyris’s expansion into hydrocarbon fuels.

The mysterious agreement with Shell, regarding diesel, is one to watch. The decidedly vague disclosure was buried in Amyris’ amended S-1A registration statement, but not otherwise mentioned in a flurry of press releases from the company as it promotes its expansion in this pre-IPO environment. Shell Western Trading & Supply is one of 17 Shell trading companies that buy and sell to customers within and outside of Shell.

This news shows an interesting example of companies forming partnerships with an innovative start-up with great technology and apparently highly valuable IP. According to my Patbase search, Amyris has 21 patent families, quite a large number for such a young company. They clearly have been active and aggressive in pursuing patent protection, and those patents are critical for the meaningful partnerships they are now forming. It’s a great unfolding story of open innovation and technology transfer.

The story extends beyond the US. They have operations in Brazil, for example, which is one of the world’s hotbeds for bioenergy, bioproducts, and collaborative innovation.

Further information comes from today’s article, “Amyris: farnesene and the pursuit of value, valuations, validation and vroom,” also from Biofuels Digest.

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