It seems like every day another microbe-based biofuel startup announces its presence, and gets its 15 minutes of fame. However, only a few of these startups are anywhere near ready to bring their technology to scale. It is important to focus on these companies, because that step – bringing the technology to scale – is the biggest challenge, the highest hurdle to clear.
This week, by opening up a pilot plant in California, Amyris hopes to show that they can do just that. They aren’t the only ones this far along the path to commercialization – Petrosun, Solazyme, Greenfuel and Sapphire are hard at work trying to grow algae in a variety of ways.
What’s Amyris’ angle? First of all, they aren't growing algae, but rather yeast. They are experts when it comes to customized genetic engineering. They started out as a pharmaceutical company, mass producing an anti-malaria drug. They did so by tweaking the metabolic pathways in their yeast - essentially using the organisms as factories, and rearranging the machines to build the exact chemical they wanted. Now they are applying that technique to biofuel. Rather than simply picking organisms with high fat content (which is what most of the algae startups are doing), Amyris is designing a yeast strain that will make a proprietary molecule that they have chosen specifically because it will make a good fuel.
Now that the pilot plant is operational, Amyris expects another year and half before they start full scale commercial production. Until then, it looks like one of the issues they will be focusing on is sourcing the sugars they need to feed the yeast. They have recently partnered with a Brazilian company, Crystalsev, which currently operates ethanol plants. Crystalsev already has plenty of feedstock (which they use to make ethanol), and they also have the infrastructure necessary to export and distribute the fuel.
written by Craig, November 12, 2008
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