Sugar cane diesel, gas, and jet fuel coming from Amyris

Sugar cane is mostly used for ethanol today, but Amyris says it will be a feedstock for more powerful fuels by 2010.

Amyris, a rapidly growing biotech company that coaxes genetically enhanced microbes to produce fuel and medicine, has signed a deal with two Brazilian companies to come out with a sugar-cane-based diesel and other fuels by 2010.

Right now, Brazilian sugar cane growers convert a substantial amount of their crop into ethanol. Ethanol, however, isn't as flexible a fuel as biodiesel. For one thing, only certain types of cars can run on ethanol-heavy fuels like E85. Biodiesel works pretty much in any diesel engine. Ethanol is an alcohol. Biodiesel and other fuels produced via Amyris' process are hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbons get produced by designer microbes turning food into fuel rather than geological forces, but they are hydrocarbons nonetheless. The well-to-wheel (or crop-to-exhaust pipe) output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, however, is lower with biofuels.

A gallon of ethanol also only gets about two-thirds of the mileage of gas. Biodiesel gets, roughly, 11 percent lower mileage than regular diesel. Still, that means that the energy density of biodiesel is better.

Amyris, Crystalsev (a fuel distributor), and Santelisa Vale (an ethanol refiner) will also produce a jet fuel and a synthetic gasoline. This will be Amyris' launch into commercially producing fuel. The company currently makes a medicine for malaria.

The three companies will open research and development headquarters in Campinas in June, and a pilot facility is expected to be operational in 2009.

Demand for diesel is growing at approximately 4 percent annually and is estimated to exceed 600 billion gallons by 2020, according to Amyris. The Brazilian diesel market is expected to grow from approximately 45 billion liters in 2007 to more than 80 billion liters in 2020.

Amyris came out of research at UC Berkeley and is funded by several venture firms (The Gates Foundation has also given the company grants.) The company also has ties to BP. Amyris CEO John Melo, in fact, is an alum of BP.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.


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