It’s true. Here in Silicon Valley, several ex-software execs may have found the answer to the $140/barrel oil prices. How? Genetically-engineered bug excretion. That’s right. Bugs eat sugar, and crap oil. It’s called Renewable Petroleum™ and it’s from a biotechnology company called LS9.
They are fed agricultural waste, which is used as “feedstock,” as it is known in the biofuels industry. For fermentation to take place, you need raw material. Literally anything is usable as long as it can be broken down into sugars. This allows the possibility for different agricultural waste to be used as feedstock based on whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy. For example, wheat straw in California, or wood chips in the South. This prevents the problems that could arise by using food crops for fuel, like the tortilla inflation that caused food riots in Mexico City last year. Problems have also arised in Eqypt, Haiti, China, India, Vietnam and Cambodia because of increased corn production for ethanol.
Why is this process superior to other alternative fuel processes? It is derived from the same feedstocks as ethanol, but uses 65% less energy. In cellulosic ethanol, the feedstocks are converted to fermentable sugars, and those sugars are put in a fermentation vat. They also use yeast, which then produces ethanol that mixes with water and has to be extracted via distillation.
On the other hand, LS9’s genetically-engineered microbes, produce hydrocarbons via a fatty acid metabolic process, that are immiscible. Meaning, they don’t mix with water, so they float to the top of the vat, and are then, essentially, skimmed off the top. Thereby creating the 65% energy savings.
They are called “Designer Biofuels” because the microbes can be tailored the required use. For example, they can be designed to make “bio-crude,” which can be refined into gas, or used to make petroleum-based products like plastics, fertilizers, etc.
The question of the day: How will this effect greenhouse-gas emissions? Well, considering that this is petroleum, the pure combustion of it is essentially the same. However, if you look at the big picture, the life cycle, it does potentially represent a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, compared to both gas and ethanol.
One of the advantages LS9’s products have, compared to gas, is that they don’t require drilling for oil. Therefore they don’t release any previously buried carbon into the atmosphere, as they do in drilling. They created a closed loop, recycling CO2 already in the atmosphere.
Then, compared to ethanol, if it were to be scaled up, it would require distribution through a lot of trains and trucks, which will burn lots of gas and emitting an excess of CO2. LS9’s products can be distributed via the oil infrastructure thats already in place. LS9’s products also have about twice the energetic content of cellulosic ethanol, which means that they require half as much feedstock for the same amount of output. Thus reducing the industrial agriculture because of lesser feedstock requirements.
LS9 also states that if they can use Brazilian sugar cane as feedstock, the price of this fuel would be $50 per barrel.
LS9 is a privately-held industrial biotechnology company based in Silicon Valley. They are backed by venture capital firms Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. And with Robert Walsh, a renowned transportation fuels executive from Shell, as their president, they aren’t fooling around. Walsh was General Manager Supply for Shell Europe Oil Products, where he was responsible for $30 billion in annual revenue.
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