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Biofuel From Man-made Bugs

 Posted by on April 7, 2008
Apr 072008

By John DeFore

One of this spring’s box office successes, 21, draws on the true-life tale of a team of MIT students who used their mathematical gifts synthhelix.jpgto win huge sums counting cards in Las Vegas. One of the men who was part of that group, Neil Renninger, has since gone from blackjack to biofuel, training his talents toward innovative research with a company called Amyris

The April issue of Popular Science contains a detailed story on that research, which chemical engineer Renninger is pursuing with biologist Jack Newman and partner Kinkead Reiling. They’re working in the field of synthetic biology, in which genes from one organism are transplanted into another to create something new. The company got off the ground with a $42.6 million Gates Foundation grant to produce a malaria drug with this technology; realizing that their techniques could produce all sorts of different molecules, Amyris soon added biofuels to their research agenda.

In what Pop Sci calls “a brilliant and weird twist on the future of green,” the company is developing a modified version of E. coli that digests glucose from plants like sugarcane and excretes hydrocarbon molecules, which will then be used to make (among other fuels) plain old gasoline.

Isn’t gasoline the enemy? The entrepreneurs aren’t arguing that alternative auto fuels shouldn’t emerge, but they point out that most are a long way off and that, while an alternative like ethanol would require new infrastructure (it’s incompatible with existing pipelines) their bug-brewed fuel would work exactly like what we’ve used for a century. Yes, it would still produce carbon emissions, but Amyris argues they would be nearly cancelled out by the amount of CO2 consumed by the crops grown to make the fuel.

Amyris hopes to build a pilot plant this year, and to be selling to consumers (biodiesel first, then jet fuel and gasoline) within two or three years. Others, from startup companies to giants like BP, are pursuing similar plans, and all are likely to face questions from skeptics about use of crop land for gas instead of fuel, the wisdom of re-engineering nature, and the like. But the prospect of keeping our current transportation system rolling without needing to import precious oil is, for Amyris and others, evidently worth a gamble.

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