Sunday, November 01, 2009

Synthetic biology enables green petroleum

The good news about the number of worldwide vehicles, approximately 1 billion at present and expected to double in the next few decades, is the number of fossil fuel alternatives feverishly underway, many of which have established pilot projects and are expected to launch in selected commercial markets in 2011.

Synbio enables green petroleum

The current killer app of synthetic biology, the programming and engineering of biology, is green petroleum.
Several companies are developing improved versions of fossil fuels which can be easily substituted into the existing worldwide fuel infrastructure for autos, planes, etc. at approximately the same cost of fossil fuels (oil is presently $80 per barrel). Pilot plants are underway and commercial introduction is expected in 2011. Sapphire Energy and Synthetic Genomics are working with algal fuel, ramping the highly efficient natural process of algae creating petroleum through photosynthesis.

Other companies such as Amyris Biotechnologies are using synthetic biology to generate ethanol, and LS9 is synthesizing carbohydrates into petroleum with designer microbes. In the farther future, late-generation biofuels are contentious but already being envisioned by companies like Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, employing carbon dioxide (CO2) as a feedstock for bacteria to convert into methane using molecular hydrogen as the energy source.

Green petroleum vs. electric vehicles
There may be less of a competition between transportation fuel alternatives and more of a market suitability analysis governing which choices arise in which areas. Large markets like the U.S. are already showing signs of both, or all, alternatives arising. Markets and countries with other parameters such as smaller size, increased government involvement and more stringent emissions regulations my make a strategic commitment towards certain choices, for example an interesting train and EV-sharing program announced in Denmark.

International electric vehicle leader Better Place notes that the ‘Goldilocks’ markets for greenfield electric vehicle networks are countries that are not too big to risk the introduction of such a disruptive solution and not too small such that economies of scale would not work. The poster child market for the company is Israel, with has networks of charging stations already installed in Tel Aviv and plans to build another 100 in Jerusalem for the mass availability of electric cars in 2011.

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