Archive for the ‘biofuels’ Category

California startup Amyris engineers microbes to transform them into molecular oil refineries, digesting sugar to produce low-carbon equivalents of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Now in a bid to commercialize its technology, Amryis has struck a deal to create a joint venture with Brazilian ethanol giant Crystalev to produce biodiesel from sugarcane.

Some three-quarters of Brazil’s cars run on ethanol made from domestic sugarcane but the country imports diesel. “This is a game changer,” Amyris co-founder Jack Newman told Green Wombat this week at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in Pasadena. “It gives us the ability to make a difference in terms of scale by tapping into existing agricultural land and Brazil’s ethanol infrastructure. It’s a great step forward for Amyris, and Brazil gets the option of producing ethanol or diesel from same resources.”

Most biodiesel today is made from soybeans or recycled vegetable oil and does not offer the same performance as petroleum-based diesel. The biodiesel produced by Amyris’ custom-designed microbes matches that performance and can be used in existing engines while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent, according to Newman, a microbiologist who is Amyris’ senior vice president of research.

If Amyris, an Emeryville-based company backed by marquee venture capitalists Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, can replicate its laboratory success in the field the environmental benefits could substantial.

For Brazil to become self-sufficient in diesel it would otherwise have to plant more soy, which means cutting down more of the Amazon rainforest that already is being destroyed to plant soy destined for North American dinner tables. Sugarcane grown on reclaimed pasture land and distilled with Amyris technology can produce ten times as much diesel per acre as soy. “You won’t have to displace crops into the rainforest area,” Newman says.

Production of the Brazilian biodiesel is expected to begin in 2010 if all goes according to plan and the necessary regulatory approvals are obtained.

“One of the reasons Brazil is so excited about the technology is that this gives them a biodiesel option with this great infrasture they already have,” Newman says. “It could provide them with 90 billion gallons a year without having to reclaim new land.”

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PASADENA, Calif. — Green tech guru Vinod Khosla probably didn’t win many friends among the chardonnay-and-carbon-offsets crowd Tuesday during an appearance at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference, where he castigated well-heeled enviros for thinking that driving a Toyota (TM) Prius and other “feel-good solutions” will save the planet

“The Prius is more greenwash than green,” the venture capitalist said on stage during a conversation with Fortune senior writer Adam Lashinsky. “Priuses sell a lot but so do Gucci bags. The hybridization of cars is the most expensive way to reduce carbon.”

“We do a lot of feel-good things like put solar panels up in foggy San Francisco so a few middle-class and upper-middle-class people feel good about themselves,” he added.


If Khosla was typically on the offensive, he’s been on the defensive a bit of late over early investments in corn-based biofuels. Alarm has escalated over the past year about the impact of taking food crops out of production to grow a gasoline substitute.

After Lashinsky read a recent quote from the Indian finance minister – “food-based biofuels are a crime against humanity,” Khosla agreed that “food-based biofuels are the wrong way to go. We have much better alternatives.” He has long championed cellulosic biofuels that can be produced from non-food plants like switchgrass or from wood waste and characterized his ethanol investments as a way to get the lay of the biofuels landscape.

Never shy about stirring the pot, he declared that, “People’s views on green are obsolete.” The way to fight climate, according to Khosla, is not to focus on putting solar panels on roofs or building electric cars but increasing the efficiency of things like engines and the operations of mainstream businesses.

Worried about the high price of oil? Don’t. “My forecast for 2030 is that price of oil will be below $25 a barrel,” Khosla said. No matter, he added, because by then biofuels will be cheaper.

So stick that in your Prius.

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Fortune senior editor David Kirkpatrick reports from Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference:

PASADENA, Calif — One of the more interesting observations I’ve heard at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference concerned genetically-modified foods and nuclear power. Someone commented that these two things — historically the object of huge vituperation from environmentally-minded critics — are both seeing a modulation of criticism.

The world is undergoing a food crisis caused, at least in part, by an undue emphasis on biofuels and in any case closely connected to the dramatically increased price of oil. (I certainly hope the issue of biofuels and food comes up when Adam Lashinsky interviews biofuel’s crown prince Vinod Khosla.) In the face of this food crisis, the antipathy toward GMOs may be starting to fade. The recent moves by Korea to allow in American beef after long resisting it, and by Japan to allow American rice, may just be early signs, this guy said. I’d speculate also that if it’s a question of starvation or survival, the southern African nations which have so adamantly opposed GMOs will almost certainly rethink their positions. (Aside from Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, of course, from whom rationality cannot be presumed.)

In a session on the topic of nuclear power, Fortune’s David Whitford asked the audience how many were unalterably opposed to increasing nuclear power in the U.S. for any reason. In this room of perhaps 300 environmentally-minded Americans, only about 20 raised their hands. With oil at $116 and global warming an ever-more urgent concern, minds are opening. Not that most of those in the room wouldn’t add substantial caveats to their unwillingness to rule nuclear out.

That said, the advocacy of nuclear power shown by Alex Flint of the Nuclear Energy Institute on Whitford’s panel drifted to some absurd extremes. For instance, he said that he would be willing to have a nuclear waste facility in his backyard, and that the location of a nuclear power plant “as close as possible” to his house “would be good for land values.” What is this guy smoking?

In answer to my question — one also raised by his co-panelist David Lockbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists — about what happens if a jet piloted by a terrorist plows into a nuclear plant, Flint was unconvincing. He claims that studies show that plants’ containment vessels are strong enough to prevent any release of radiation. To which Lockbaum replied that all the studies pre-9/11 found that even if that were the case, the shaking that would be inevitable in such a scenario would sever essentially all pipes and cables in and out of a plant, making a meltdown likely. Studies since 9/11 are classified, he noted, adding “but the laws of physics did not change that day.”

In the random interesting comments category, I was struck by an amazing statistic proffered by IBM’s (IBM) Rich Lechner in a session on Greening the IT industry. There were plenty of convincing arguments being made in the room that IT and the intelligence bequeathed by computing can have a major impact on reducing energy use and carbon releases.

But Lechner noted that a virtual person in Second Life has a larger carbon footprint than the average person in Brazil. His point, presumably, was that as people enter a developed economy, their carbon footprint goes way up along with their increasing use of tech.

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Cilion, the corn ethanol startup backed by Khosla Ventures and Richard Branson’s Virgin Fuels, has turned to a veteran oil industry executive to lead the California company. Former BP (BP) group vice president Mark Noetzel was named Cilion’s new CEO and a member of its board. While at BP in London, Noetzel ran the oil company’s retail, fuels transport and wholesaling operations in Asia, Europe and the United States.

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Will the Boeing Dreamliner fly on the biofuel butanol one day? Richard Branson’s Virgin Fuels, which in April agreed to collaborate with Boeing (BA) on creating commercial jet biofuels, today announced it is investing in Gevo, a Pasadena, California, startup developing technology to turn biomass into butanol. Like corn-derived ethanol, butanol is an alcohol-based fuel but is much more energy rich and can be made from a wider range of biomass like straw and corn stalks. Virgin Fuels joins biofuels guru Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures – which initially funded Gevo – in the company’s lastest financing round. Virgin and Kholsa are being tight-lipped about the investment, declining to reveal its size or the split between the two investors. You won’t find out much more by going to Gevo’ one-page site. The company was founded by three California Institute of Technology scientists and licenses its technology from the university. Along with the funding, Gevo announced that it had appointed a former Cargill executive, Patrick Gruber, as CEO. This is just the latest hookup between Virgin and Khosla. Virgin has also invested in Khosla-funded ethanol startup Cilion. Virgin Fuels has outposts in San Francisco and in Palo Alto.

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Vinod Khosla’s Range Fuels has been given the green light from the state of Georgia to build the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. The Colorado company founded by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist will begin construction of the plant this summer in Treutlen County, Georgia, with production set to start in 2008. Unlike corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol can be made from a variety of biomass matter – from wood chips to grass to cornstalks. It’s the great green hope for ramping up production of ethanol while avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural impact of corn ethanol. The catch is the cellulosic approach has been expensive and experimental. Range, however, says it has developed a process that reduces production costs and can make the fuel from wood chips, agricultural wastes, grasses, and cornstalks, hog manure, municipal garbage, sawdust and paper pulp. The first phase of the project, which will make ethanol from "wood waste" from Georgia forests, will produce 20 million gallons of ethanol annually, ramping up to 100 million gallons a year, according to Range.

Meanwhile, late last week E3 BioFuels flipped the switch on what it calls the first "closed loop"  corn ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. The plant uses biogas produced from cow manure to power the boilers that distill the ethanol. Left over "wet grain" from the ethanol production process is feed to the cattle, which then convert it into…you get the picture.

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photo originally uploaded by zadalew

Catching up on yesterday’s news, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it’s investing up to $385 million in six cellulosic ethanol plants. Cellulosic ethanol is the great green hope as an alternative to corn ethanol. That’s because it can be made from everything from fast-growing plants like switchgrass to vegetable waste to wood chips, and it produces significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than corn ethanol. A host of companies are gearing up to produce cellulosic ethanol, which involves a more complicated technological process. Among them, Range Fuels, a Colorado company backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s firm, Khosla Ventures. Range is scoring up to $76 million in taxpayer cash over the next four years, which does raise Green Wombat’s eyebrows given Khosla’s not infrequent criticisms of solar energy as dependent on government handouts. The cellulosic ethanol companies that won the Department of Energy money are mainly startups, but they’re backed by some big corporate players. For instance, DuPont (DD) is involved with the Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while Goldman Sachs (GS) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS-B) are backing Iogen Biorefinery Partners of Arlington, Virginia. Waste Management (WMI) meanwhile is investing in BlueFire Ethanol, a Southern California company. The six companies are expected to eventually produce 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol year.

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