Back in November Amyris Biotechnologies Inc. began operations at pilot-scale in a new renewable diesel facility in Emeryville, Calif., as part of its strategy to ultimately commercialize renewable diesel production in Brazil.  In late June the company opened its plant in Campanis, Brazil, to demonstrate large-scale production of hydrocarbons from sugarcane processed using its engineered microbes.  The geneticists are demo-ing bio matter directly to diesel in real time now.

Amyris Bioreactor at Pilot Scale.  Click image for more info.

Amyris Bioreactor at Pilot Scale. Click image for more info.

The company’s diesel fuel works in today’s engines and matches the performance of petroleum diesel. Burning the fuel produces no sulfur, less carbon monoxide, and fewer nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other emissions, compared with petroleum diesel. Government regulation and carbon taxes may help the company compete, but its goal is a fuel that matches or beats the price of oil–about $60 a barrel. Neil Renninger Amyris founder and chief technical officer says, “The greenness of the fuel might drive a few people to it, but we need to be cost competitive.”  That $60 quote just might do it, if the oil price can be held near $60, the one risk in the deal.  Just remember there are petroleum plays that won’t work at and above $60 either so Amyris looks very good for sound worldwide economic conditions. Stack enough of these technologies up and $60 becomes an oil price ceiling.

Amyris’s process is crushing sugarcane stalks with the freed liquids placed in 5,000-liter fermenters with the company’s engineered yeast, which in its turn makes a diesel-precursor molecule. The company has tested the process in 60,000-liter fermenters, but the demonstration plant is not yet operating at this scale. As the precursor molecules are produced non miscible, they separate and float to the top of the solution.  A centrifuge aids the process with a little synthetic gravity. The low energy required for this form of separation, says Renninger, is one of the cost advantages of making hydrocarbons rather than ethanol. Centrifuge energy requires just one ten-thousandth of the energy content of the diesel fuel yield whereas water-miscible ethanol in contrast, must be distilled from the fermentation solution, a process that uses one-third of ethanol’s energy content. The hydrocarbons are then hydrogenated at low temperature and low pressure to synthesize diesel or other compounds.  Very slick, and very smart.

The diesel is good stuff, too.  In April the EPA registered the Amyris product making it the first hydrocarbon-based fuel made from plant-derived resources registered for commercial sale.  It’s a straight form of hydrocarbon, with performance properties that equal or exceed those of petroleum-sourced fuels and currently available biofuels. A key attribute of the fuel is that as a hydrocarbon – the same component found in today’s petroleum fuels – enables it to be used in any kind of diesel engine and withstand extremely low temperatures without the need to alter engines. It can also be integrated and distributed within the existing fuel’s infrastructure.  Breakthrough stuff.

Why Amyris chose Brazil and sugarcane instead of corn is best compared using the ethanol numbers.  As an ethanol feedstock corn costs a proportional $1.20 per gallon and sugarcane a proportion of just $0.85. Sugarcane processing is also significantly cheaper because the process starts with sugar and because the fibrous waste left after the sugars are extracted for fermentation is burned to produce electricity. While corn ethanol processing is a net electricity consumer, sugarcane ethanol is a net electricity producer.  There is a lot less energy inputs to sugar cane and no process treatment to upgrade the cornstarch to fermentable sugar.  But sugarcane is a tropical crop only with a limited range.  To get to large production numbers some temperate solutions are inevitable.

The fast-growing fibrous crops like poplar trees and switchgrass need techniques for conversion into fermentable sugars that are still in development and those that work now are currently way too expensive.  The research has to focus on costs to get to fermentable sugar to go to hydrocarbons for biology processes to compete.

The sugarcane process also comes out ahead the corn process on environmental measures. Compared with petroleum fuels, the making of corn ethanol leads to a net 10% decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions, using sugarcane ethanol instead of petroleum leads to a 60 to 80 percent decrease in greenhouse gases.  Renninger says relative to sugarcane ethanol the Amyris diesel fuels made from sugarcane release another 10% less.  That’s an edit from Amyris’s own comments, which leave the premise unstated.  But its obvious that with so little added input and low heat requirements the Amyris process is going to be environmentally friendly.

It looks like biodiesel leadership will come in at or below $60 a barrel from Amyris located in Brazil.  That is the easy pickings on the biology situation, getting to temperate crops and the more sophisticated processes that will require are the big prizes.  It may be process innovation or maybe crop innovation or both.  But one thing looks more certain; we’re going to find a new bottom for oil in the next few weeks.  If the oil price can valley above $50, Amyris and others have serious potential to join the market long term.


10 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on October 20, 2009 10:16 AM

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of making Biodiesel fuel from…..Sugar cane.

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