New energy act to fuel flow of 'biogasoline'

Ethanol is currently the star of biofuels, but new mandates will spur development of synthetic biofuels that mimic fossil fuels, policy analyst says.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

The recently passed energy act is a boon for ethanol. But other biofuels, including plant-derived fossil fuel look-alikes, are also poised to get a boost.

A handful of companies are using different approaches to designing synthetic versions of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They include including LS9, Amyris Biotechnologies, Codexis, and J. Craig Venter-founded Synthetic Genomics.

These biofuels, which some refer to as "renewable petroleum," will be designed with the same properties of hydrocarbons that now fuel our vehicles, but be made from biomass, rather than petroleum.

Custom-designed synthetic fuels are very appealing to established fossil fuel providers because, unlike ethanol, they should not require significant changes to the existing fuel infrastructure, said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels policy analyst at the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

"I think (fuel providers) are going to dramatically step up efforts to find different molecules because...the stuff they have to do at their own facilities (to handle ethanol) is really a nontrivial cost," Greene said. "I think they are eager to find a more fungible fuel within their system."

The recently passed Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that there be 36 billion gallons of domestic biofuel production per year by 2022, with 20 billion coming from non-corn based, or "advanced," biofuels.

Established fuel companies have varying levels of commitment to biofuels. Even General Motors is stepping up its commitment to biofuels with an investment, announced Sunday, in ethanol company Coskata.

Shell, for example, has a partnership with cellulosic ethanol maker Iogen, and it has also invested in Codexis, a company that is designing a specialty enzyme to make synthetic biofuels.

But ethanol requires separate tanks and blending facilities while properly designed sythetic hydrocarbons should be able to function within the existing infrastructure.

Neil Renninger, senior vice president of development and co-founder of Amyris Biotechnologies, said his company's technology allows it to optimize fuels with certain characteristics, such as the ability to operate at low temperatures and emissions.

He spoke at the EmTech Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last September, where he said that processes to make these advanced biofuels will be ready within three or four years.

"All we're doing is changing the metabolic pathways so that it no longer makes ethanol, it makes a hydrocarbon," Renninger said. "You define a fuel molecule that looks more like gasoline."

(For more on synthetic biology and its adherents, click here.)