The sell-off of synthetic biology pioneer LS9 goes to show that making biofuels from genetically engineered microbes has yet to deliver economically.
By Martin LaMonica
Why: Advanced biofuels could help reduce the use of gasoline and diesel.
Key innovation: Its genetically engineered yeast turns sugars into a building block of diesel fuel, which is usable in the existing transportation infrastructure.
Amyris has engineered yeasts that convert sugars into a hydrocarbon molecule called farnesene, which can be processed into fuels for transport or products for the chemical industry. If hydrogenated, the hydrocarbon can be turned into a diesel fuel that burns cleaner than conventional diesel, reducing emissions of sulfur, nitrogen oxides, and particulates.
Unlike ethanol made from sugarcane or corn, Amyris's diesel fuel can be distributed through the same pipelines as conventional fuels. It can also be pumped with existing fuel pumps and used in conventional vehicles. In addition to being made into fuels, farnesene can also be made into a number of chemical products, including industrial and automotive oils and lubricants.
The company, which went public in late 2010, is making biofuels from sugarcane because making them from corn is too expensive. In 2009, Amyris opened a demonstration plant in Brazil, which has an extensive infrastructure for biofuel production and is the world's most efficient producer of sugar. In a joint venture with one of the world's largest sugar and ethanol producers, it is converting part of one major Brazilian sugarcane mill into its first commercial production facility. With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy,Amyris also is testing sweet sorghum, a feedstock that is more widely available in the United States.
Challenges and Next Steps:
Amyris's production facility is scheduled to come on line in 2012. In the meantime, Amyris has contracted with chemical manufacturers in Brazil and the United States to begin producing its first product, a base oil for cosmetics. The company also has signed an agreement with Procter & Gamble to use its oils in a number of its products.