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The Scientist Still Fighting for the Clean Fuel the World Forgot

Submitted by on May 16, 2018 – 4:15 pmNo Comment

by James Temple (MIT Technology Review)  In the closing weeks of 2008, the US Department of Energy invited politicians and press to a dedication ceremony for the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California. The state-of-the-art lab, backed by $125 million in federal funding, filled the top floor of a glimmering glass office building that reflected the grand hopes for advanced biofuels.

“It’s bringing together the best people in one location to work on what might be one of the most significant challenges of our time,” said Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and chief executive of the research institute.

The mission of JBEI (pronounced “jay-bay”) was to produce cheap biofuels from cellulosic sources, meaning the leaves and stems of plants like switchgrass rather than the grains of food crops like corn. The lab aimed to move beyond ethanol, striving to create carbon-neutral fuels that could fill the tanks of standard cars, planes, ships, and trucks. If they succeeded, it promised to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and US dependence on oil (see “The price of biofuels”).

Keasling did as much as any single individual to advance the field and sell the promise of such fuels. In addition to running JBEI, he cofounded several well-funded startups, including LS9 and Amyris Biotechnologies, to turn that vision into reality.

But a decade later, the field is in shambles. JBEI and other federally funded bioenergy labs still survive, but most advanced biofuels companies, including Keasling’s, have given up on the dream.

Producing cheap advanced biofuels simply ended up being a far harder problem than expected. 

But as the economic recession of 2008 took hold, oil prices tumbled from a peak near $150 per barrel to a few dollars shy of $30 by the end of the year. “The renewable economy is a hard thing to get excited about when you’re dealing with a $30 barrel of oil,” says David Berry, a general partner at the venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, who cofounded LS9 with Keasling in 2005. “Debt and equity markets washed up overnight.”

And they took many of the startups with them.

… JBEI and other labs have made significant scientific strides. Researchers at the California institute, which serves as the hub of a collaboration between six research labs and universities, have published nearly 700 peer-reviewed papers, earned nearly 30 patents, and launched six startups.

Finally, scientists there have engineered microbes that can produce several types of “drop-in” fuels from these plants, including pinene, a precursor to jet fuel; isopentenol, which could work as a gasoline replacement; and bisabolene, which produces “a darn good diesel,” Keasling says.

Among other things, the supply of transportation biofuels will have to increase tenfold in the coming decades.

When it comes to mobile, dense energy storage, liquid fuels are simply very hard to beat, particularly since so much of the world’s energy infrastructure is built around them, says Hanna Breetz, a political scientist focused on alternative fuels and vehicles at Arizona State University.

Even if labs do make striking progress in the next few years, it could still take decades for these fuels to seize real market share in an industry with trillions of dollars sunk into the daily business of extracting and refining oil. READ MORE

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