The greenish sheen that sometimes appears on still water is actually a potential energy powerhouse–cyanobacteria, a microorganism that manufactures its own energy through photosynthesis.
Biotechnology companies today are working to develop cyanobacteria, algae, and even municipal waste as feedstocks for advanced biofuels. But these promising abundant non-food sources lack either the government subsidies or the commercial markets that support production of biofuels from the conventional feedstocks you likely are familiar with: corn, sugarcane, and soy.
Biofuels at a Crossroads
Learn more about the issues surrounding biofuels.
Algae biodiesel and biofuels have made great strides toward commercial development since 2008, even though they were not fully incorporated into the important U.S. regulation that went into place that year to spur development of alternatives to petroleum fuel: the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). For other potential advanced biofuel feedstocks, too, the financial and regulatory landscape presents challenges. Animal fats, for example, are normally disposed of as waste products, but they could be collected and marketed by building on established value chains. But when ordinary municipal solid waste is collected, it is not sorted by cellulosic and non-cellulosic content. (That means we don’t typically separate the waste that has plant fiber suitable for biofuel production.) To tap into the biofuel potential of municipal solid waste, the feedstock sources need to be established in tandem with biorefineries and downstream value chains.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has now approved 19 biofuel pathways for companies to produce and sell renewable fuels under the RFS, including pathways for all the promising new feedstocks I’ve mentioned. However, there is a backlog of 32 applications still awaiting review. The average wait time for these pathway petitions is more than a year, but cellulosic and advanced petitions have had considerably longer waits than the pathways for more conventional biofuel sources.
Companies across the United States and around the world have shown interest in these developing feedstocks:
Micromidas, a California based start-up, has developed microorganisms that transform municipal sewage to polyhydroxybutylvalerate (PHBV), a biologically derived and biodegradable plastic.
Solazyme, located in Palo Alto, California, is pioneering algal strains that can produce tailored fatty acid oils, with controlled chain lengths and polyunsaturated fat levels. These petroleum-type “drop-in” oils can be refined and processed with existing infrastructure, including pipelines and service stations, used to deliver petroleum fuels to cars and trucks today. The technology is feedstock flexible, meaning it can use a variety of sugars, including sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose and other biomass sources such as cellulosics.
Gevo, headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, combines synthetic biology and chemistry to produce isobutanol, a versatile platform chemical for liquid fuels and petrochemicals. Using a proprietary platform, Gevo coaxes modified yeasts to ferment sugars to isobutanol, which can then be used as a solvent or a gasoline blendstock that can help refiners meet their renewable fuel and clean air obligations.
Additionally, several companies utilizing new feedstocks for advanced biofuels have applications under review at the EPA:
Agrisoma Biosciences, headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario, is under EPA review for its Agrisoma Engineered Trait Loci (ETL) technology, which can turn Brassica carinata oil (Ethiopian mustard) into various forms of renewable fuel, including jet fuel. Brassica carinata has an oil profile optimized for use in the biofuel industry. It is extremely well suited for production in semi-arid areas and can offer good resistance to biotic stressors, such as insects. Agrisoma’s technology converts this feedstock into fuel by introducing all desired traits in one cycle into a specific crop chromosome, creating an optimal genetic environment.
EdeniQ, headquartered in Visalia, California, is seeking EPA approval for technology that allows the company to turn corn kernel fiber into ethanol. EdeniQ has integrated mechanical and biological processes into its biorefineries that allow them then to convert non-food plant materials into low costing cellulosic sugars.
The Iogen Corporation, based in Ottawa, Ontario, is another company under EPA review, seeking approval for conversion of a newer feedstock into ethanol. Iogen possesses the technology to covert grain sorghum into ethanol, which can later be utilized as clean fuel. Using enzymes, the company can transform biomass into sugars that are eventually fermented into ethanol which can later be purified into fuel.
Poet Biorefining-Chancellor, located in Chancellor, South Dakota, has a technology collaboration agreement with Agrivida to develop the company’s technology platforms. One of these platforms under EPA review is the capability to convert sorghum into high-performance feedstock through a protein-engineering process. Once converted, these feedstocks will be used for bio-based fuels, chemicals and animal feed.
These various forms of feedstocks can potentially become permanent cleaner alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Policy changes – such as reducing regulatory barriers and leveling the playing field with incentives – are needed to ensure companies continue to make research investments in developing novel advanced feedstocks.
Unfortunately, a draft EPA proposal for the 2014 RFS rules unlawfully leaked to the media has raised concerns over whether next-generation biofuels will continue to get the support that they need. The RFS is intended to make sure that if biofuel producers can attract the investment, build the value chains for new feedstocks, and commercialize the technology for advanced biofuels, then the U.S. transportation fuel market will be open for them. The leaked draft proposal would reverse the logic of the rule, saying there would be a limit on how open the market would be. The leaked draft has already created uncertainty about the regulatory policy for investors and advanced biofuel companies. If the EPA does reverse the RFS by proposing or working to finalize a rule that looks like the leaked draft, many promising new biofuel technologies might never be developed.
We need the kind of regulatory certainty that will provide companies with the assurance they need to invest in these novel technologies and get new products through the pipeline. We continue to encourage EPA to speed RFS pathway reviews and approve new feedstocks. And, we encourage Congress to include advanced biofuel incentives in tax extenders packages to ensure that this industry will continue to grow and prosper.
Brent Erickson is executive vice president, industrial and environment section, of the U.S.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. Erickson participated in Biofuels at a Crossroads, a Great Energy Challenge event that took place earlier this year at National Geographic headquarters. You can see more from Erickson and others in the videos collected here.