August 6, 2007

LS9 - Using synthetic biology to produce renewable petroleum

Most of the technologies explored on this blog involve the production of cellulosic ethanol using biochemical or thermochemical processes. But ethanol has its detractors, and the processes that produce cellulosic ethanol can involve the use of water and the expense of energy to produce heat. What emerging technology and renewable fuels might succeed cellulosic ethanol? Biotechnologists on both coasts think they have the answer - Renewable Petroleum™ produced using synthetic biology. Let the company's website and an article from Technology Review tell the story...

LS9, Inc., the Renewable Petroleum Company™, is a privately-held biotechnology company pursuing industrial applications of synthetic biology to produce proprietary biofuels. LS9's products, currently under development, are designed to closely resemble petroleum derived fuels, but be renewable, clean, domestically produced, and cost competitive. In addition to biofuels, LS9 will also develop industrial biochemicals for specialty applications.

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From Technology Review
Hydrocarbon fuels are better suited than ethanol to existing delivery infrastructure and engines, and their manufacture would require less energy. To make biological production of hydrocarbons a reality, the company is bringing together leaders in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology.

Synthetic biology is the state of the art of bioenegineering, and refers to the design, construction, and improvement of biological machines at the molecular genetic level.

Using synthetic biology, LS9 has reached into nature and accessed the required biological tools, engineered them to function under industrial conditions, and is optimizing their performance to meet our economic objectives.

It has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.

Beyond custom-developing hydrocarbons, LS9 foresees licensing its technology. In particular, the company might someday forge agreements with ethanol producers, whose manufacturing plants could be put to more profitable and efficient use making hydrocarbon fuels.

LS9 is counting on the fact that ethanol is not really the best biofuel. Ethanol can't be delivered through existing pipelines. It also contains 30 percent less energy than gasoline, and it must be mixed with gasoline before being burned in conventional engines. LS9's fuels would have none of these disadvantages. What's more, LS9's fuels might be produced more efficiently than ethanol. For example, at the end of ethanol fermentation, the mixture has to be distilled to separate ethanol from water. LS9's products would just float to the top of a fermentation tank to be skimmed off.

LS9 now needs to prove that its technology is economical and can produce fuels on a large scale, says Jim McMillan, principal biochemical engineer in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Bioenergy Center, based in Golden, CO. "I don't doubt that [making hydrocarbon fuel from microbes] can be done; the question is how quickly and at what cost," he says. LS9 says it hopes to bring its hydrocarbon biofuels to market in four or five years.

Next year LS9 will build a pilot plant in California to test and perfect the process, and the company hopes to be selling improved biodiesel and providing synthetic biocrudes to refineries for further processing within three to five years.

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4 comments:

timroth1618 said...

Fascinating article. Along with the potential to be a significant piece of the energy puzzle, bacterial biocrude is the answer to the one day (50, 500 years from now) when there simply isn't any more "easily" extractable oil. (How we get oil today isn't exactly a easy process logistically and politically.) Even if transportation 500 years from now doesn't use any fossil fuels, there will always be a need for petroleum-based plastics in computer technology, healthcare, etc.

luis said...

Great post!

If the economics don't work, recycling efforts won't either.
As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, http://LivePaths.com blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

Anonymous said...

Great job .....well done

Vladlen said...

To produce renewable petroleum in big scale factory the material bio-resistant and impermeable with respect the working bacteria is necessary. I suggest using High-Energy Mixed (HEM) concrete I work with last 20 years.
Conventional concrete with pores and capillaries doesn't fit this purpose. Polymer concrete is denser, but is not bio-resistant. Only HEM concrete where pores and capillaries are filled with its own CSH gel non-permeable and bio-resistant. I use the same ingredients - cement, sand, water and high speed mixing. See www.hemconcrete.com.

Vladlen Fridman
vfrid38@comcast.net