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Amyris opens plant to make diesel from sugar cane

Biotech start-up has genetically optimized microbes to produce diesel fuel from sugar cane. Its first plant, in California, will be followed by a commercial plant in Brazil.

Amyris Biotechnologies on Wednesday announced the opening of a pilot facility in Emeryville, Calif., that turns sugar cane into diesel fuel through genetically designed microbes.

The company is at the forefront of a commercial movement to use biotechnology to convert plants into fuels that resemble petroleum-based hydrocarbons.

Amyris' technique is to genetically engineer a yeast that can metabolize sugar into the desired molecules. Its first effort was to develop a malaria vaccine, which it continues to do, and it has since developed a focus on renewable fuels.

Amyris Fuels

"We're engineering the yeast, reprogramming it from making alcohols to making hydrocarbons," CEO John Melo said. "We started with E. coli (bacteria), which is what many other companies are doing, but we moved to yeast because we discovered that it was more scalable."

The company has also modified yeasts to produce chemicals; a sugar-derived jet fuel is planned for in about three years as well.

Through a partnership, Amyris plans are to produce biodiesel from sugar cane at commercial scale in Brazil by the middle of 2010. Brazil is one of the world's largest producers of ethanol, using sugar cane as a feedstock.

Amyris' biodiesel can be blended at up to 50 percent concentration with petroleum diesel, higher than most biodiesel today, which means that it can be pumped through existing pipelines. Environmentally, Amyris' "renewable diesel" has lower carbon emissions than petrodiesel and burns cleaner, Melo said.

Amyris has set up a distribution subsidiary and intends to sell its biodiesel to fleet operators, such as Wal-Mart Stores and FedEx.

Melo said the economic slowdown has forced the company to shelve its plans to go public next year.

It does expect to raise some form of capital in the next two years, either through venture funding or strategic partners, he said. The company expects revenue to increase rapidly next year, to more than $100 million, he added.