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Society of Biological Engineering’s Conference on ElectroFuels Research

Submitted by on November 15, 2011 – 2:00 pmNo Comment

by Vidya Ramanathan (Advanced Biofuels USA)  A clear view of coppery miniature treetops, brilliant skies and shimmering coastline.  This is the sight that welcomed the attendees of the first ever conference on ElectroFuels, conducted by the Society of Biologigal Engineering, under the auspices of the two-year-old agency ARPA-E, held in the 17th floor Grand Ballroom of the Providence Biltmore, Providence, RI.

Eric Toone, Deputy Director in charge of Technology for ARPA-E, set the tone of the conference in his opening remarks by congratulating the participating scientists on taking the mission of the agency towards reality.  ElectroFuels can be defined as chemical and electrical energy harnessed using engineered microorganisms that feed off of power from renewable resources, using CO2 in the process.  The genetically modified organisms extract energy from renewable resources up to 10% more efficiently than even prevalent advanced biomass techniques.  It could alternately be simply stated as use of biomass and algae to efficiently generate electrons.  SBE’s Conference on ElectroFuels Research was almost exclusively to review the progress of the various projects that had received the ARPA-E grants.

The conference started off with modest attendance and filled up for the two full days of proceedings, and once again tapered for the final forenoon session.  And, it was on these thinly attended days that  the two Industry panels were featured.  It could be taken as a strong reflection of the fact that this technology is still in its early stages and has not yet evolved to engage a lot of industry players.  The attendees were mostly enthusiastic and optimistic about delivering the solution for the energy crisis.  Some were cautionary about the added carbon footprint resulting from hydrogen used in the upgrading step (typically a hydrotreating process) when it comes from fossil-based resources.  Others were realistic about the cost implications.

Sharon Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs made an excellent case to the dining scientists (salad at talk-time, and rest of dinner during Q&A was the format) for the need for Energy Security.  She emphasized the Military’s need for alternate energy solutions for practical reasons – economic situation where the Government is strapped for funds and facing a lot of cuts, to liberate the Government from foreign oil dependency, and most importantly, to better equip the men and women in uniform on the field, and on missions.  She projected persuasive reasoning abilities, and clear understanding of deliverables.  I would like to compliment her on her arrival ahead of time, having a good sense of humor, and her respect for the assembled scientists and their work.

Dennis Beal, VP, Global Vehicles, Fedex Express, delivering his Keynote address spoke on his company’s electrified vehicles deployed in several nations.  He made his case by letting the scientific community know that there are applications and consumers for electric vehicles.  And, to run electric vehicles, electricity was essential to him, as his (his company’s) motto was “Service with Certainty”.  He also emphasized that the energy solution should not cut into his company’s profit margin (probably indicating that it should be available within existing cost structures).  FedEx’s electrification project was done with ARPA-E funding support.  His interest in renewable energy is related to moving away from “dependence on foreign oil”, a concern for energy security.  If domestic oil were to become easily available, from a corporate point of view, he may see less reason for a commitment to clean energy.

Daniel Nocera, Founder, Sun Catalytix, Professor of Energy and Chemistry at MIT, presented on “Inexpensive Hydrogen from Solar and Water.”  He is fully invested in solar interests (he heads a couple of solar initiatives), and believes that the cost of silicon is plummeting, and that solar power is going to become very cheap.  He sounded like he was on a mission to find a solution for the ‘third world’s energy crisis.’  Put in corporate terms, he is looking to be the world’s McDonald’s in the Energy sector.  He encouraged the young scientists in the room to help him achieve his mission.

Greg Stephanopoulus, Conference Chair, kicked off the technical presentations with one of his own – on total carbon utilization in biofuel production.  The focus of the research is on the engineering / isolation of organisms capable of rapid CO2 fixation and acetate production.  This set the trend for the technical presentations spread across four sessions titled “Advances in ElectroFuels.”  Presentations ranged from reverse-fuel-cells (microbial), Isobutanol production, CO2 reduction / fixation to produce liquid fuels, artificial photosynthesis, carbon utilization during bio fuel production.  These were all well appreciated presentations, based on the number and quality of questions generated among the audience.

Two other aspects of ARPA-E funding were to put algae studies on the fast-track, and to address  Hydrogen and CO2 related needs.  On the algae front, cultivation strategies and yield enhancement were addressed.  A comprehensive life cycle analysis of algal fuels using the GREET model (developed by Argonne National Laboratories) was a good change of pace from all other presentations, high-lighting aspects that will need to be addressed eventually by the other presenters and their partners as they move up from research phase to pilot and production phase.

On the Hydrogen and CO2 supply aspect, H2 production for fuel cells seemed familiar territory. The presentation on CO2 production focused on obtaining Co2 most efficiently and cost effectively, with capturing Co2 from ambient atmosphere more costly than obtaining it from industrial sources.  My pick is the presentation on H2 production options and their carbon footprint.  There can be a lot of talk about many necessary things, but eventually, the unavoidable topic will need to be addressed.  How do you produce H2 without generating CO2?  George Bollas of the University of Connecticut mentioned two options for generating H2 without generating CO2 – nuclear and solar.  And, the most efficient is nuclear, although safety is the big concern.

The two panels that started and ended the conference were on Industry – “View from the Industrial World”, and “The Business Side of Electrofuels.”   LanzaTech, Sun Catalytix, and Joule Unlimited formed the first panel, moderated by Jonathan Burbaum of ARPA-E.  These three companies seemed to showcase ideal solutions.  Capture and transformation of waste gases into energy rich fuels / chemicals using renewable energy sources sounds like a great solution to handle industrial pollution.  Generation of renewable fuel from sunlight and waste water, or sunlight and CO2 seem non-intrusive.  Seeing these near market technologies (because the research is conducted in energy startups, rather than academic laboratories) mature will be gratifying indeed.

The other industry panel was titled “The Business Side of Electrofuels”.  Moderated by William Aulet of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, the panel included Terrabon, Novogy, and Ginkgo Bioworks.  The discussion centered around branding and marketing and return on investments.  They highlighted that one had to be committed to energy to invest in energy because returns are only to be anticipated in the long term, rather than immediately.  The discussion turned to electrofuels being more viable for countries that were not already developed, because of infrastructure (cell phone industry trend to cite as example) and regulation.

A good percentage of the attendees among the long-term players seemed to be content to find a solution to the energy crisis to get away from oil dependency.  But the sense among the newer entrants seemed to be more global in thinking, and address environmental issues and provide responsible solutions.

The poster sessions, featured on two days, and left available for browsing during most of the conference, were well attended.  There was a lot of interested exchange of ideas among the participants.

The continued great weather of all the four days of the conference added to the positive atmosphere.  The long lunch break (almost three hours) allowed for a lot of networking among the participants, even as they scouted for good places to eat and stroll.

The energy solutions discussed at this conference promise clear skies, free of pollution for future generations.  READ MORE (clarification edits made 11/15/2011 1:50PM ET)

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