Biofuels are coming your way

When people hear about biofuels, they typically think of ethanol brewed from corn. That’s a reasonable association: this year the American corn crop is up nearly 20% from last year for this very reason. On the other hand, you might have also seen articles about the problems with the corn-to-ethanol process. Growing corn is, for example, so energy-intensive that it’s not clear you’re saving any greenhouse gas emissions or money by the time you’re done. It’s easy enough to see how the tractors and trucks required to harvest and transport corn use a lot of fuel, but many people don’t realize that the nitrogen-based fertilizer that gets dumped on cornfields by the ton is itself the product of a hot, expensive industrial process.

If that were where the story ended, it would all be quite sad. But there’s good news too. Life gets a lot better if you can make fuel out of stuff that we don’t eat, stuff like cornstalks, corncobs, cut grass, and wood chips. Life gets better still if the fuel you make isn’t ethanol, but something an awful lot like kerosene. This is exactly what a company called LS9 is doing. In fact there are several companies in this space: Amyris, Codon Devices, and Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics are all in the game.

As you can guess by the names, they’re not just using brewer’s yeast to do this. They’re doing serious microbial genetic manipulation. The results are very promising, and this will no doubt lead to some fascinating Green on Green violence. Quick: which is worse? Global warming or the widespread use of genetically modified organisms? Weeee’ll seeeee…

My source for this information is Rob Carlson’s excellent synthetic biology blog Synthesis. Here’s his latest post on LS9: LS9 – “The Renewable Petroleum Company”. Here’s a general one about synthetic biofuels: The Need for Fuels Produced Using Synthetic Biology.