Fueling the Future? The Rise and Fall of Biofuels.


Part 1 of our New Year Green Biotech Series,
by Samir Chitnavis, Content Manager

There is a pressing need to develop alternatives to fossil-fuel-derived oils that are used in our transport vehicles. The term “petroleum” covers both naturally occurring unprocessed crude oil and products made up of refined crude oil, which is obtained via drilling into geological formations beneath the Earth’s surface. Over the last decade, environmental groups have been keen to stress the negative environmental effects of the petroleum industry: the combustion of such fuels contributes to climate change and acid rain, oil spills are damaging to aquatic organisms, and drilling can influence seismic activity. That’s to name a few. But change is coming.

Researcher at the University of Michigan checks the tubing in an algal biofuel study. Photo by Austin Thomason/Michigan Photography.

Researcher at the University of Michigan checks the tubing in an algal biofuel study. Photo by Austin Thomason/Michigan Photography.

Since 2008, a renaissance in electric vehicle manufacturing has been seen, spearheaded by Tesla. Such change is a result of advances in battery technology, fears about rising oil prices and governments’ desire to slash greenhouse gas emissions to comply with international policies. With France recently announcing a ban on sales of petrol and diesel-fuelled cars by 2040, and other European countries following suit, it seems that, although such targets may be ambitious, Elon Musk’s electrical vehicle takeover may have more than just legs. Caveats do remain however. Electric cars are inconvenient to charge and are still expensive, with Australia’s latest “cheap” Hyundai setting consumers back a hefty $45,000. In order to reach the mass market, affordability will be key. Fuelling the high prices is the fact that the lithium required in electrical car batteries is a finite resource and is supplied from mining industries overseas. Reports of child labour and land use conflicts in the mines of countries of the Congo and Bolivia respectively have further increased the dirt in the supply chain. But there is a serious lack of commercial alternatives. The question on everyone’s lips is “what of the biofuels?”. Fuels that are produced through biological processes, such as anaerobic respiration and agriculture, were once gaining worldwide attention in the transport market. What has gone wrong?

One type of biofuel used in transport are biologically produced alcohols, most commonly ethanol, produced from strains of anaerobically-respiring microorganisms such as yeast. The fuel can be made through enzymes in the microbes digesting and fermenting renewable inputs, such as cellulose or sugars, before the alcohol product is distilled and dried. As the most common biofuel worldwide, bioethanol can be used in conjunction or as a direct replacement for petrol. As too can biodiesel, which is made from the transesterification of natural fatty acids. The greatest market for biofuel usage is in Brazil, where by 2010, 79% of all cars were made with a hybrid fuel system of bioethanol and petrol, whilst the European Union remains the world’s largest biodiesel producer, accounting for 53% of worldwide production.

Sugarcane culture in Sertaozinho, Sao Paulo Copyright: Flickr/Sweeter Alternative

Sugarcane culture in Sertaozinho, Sao Paulo Copyright: Flickr/Sweeter Alternative

Bioalcohols have their U.S.P. grounded in the fact they are renewable and carbon-neutral, since the carbon dioxide that is released during combustion was previously assimilated by the plant during its growth. Despite its environmental benefits, it has become clear that bioalcohols have their drawbacks. One issue is that ethanol has a much lower energy density than petrol: one gallon of ethanol produces 35% less energy than conventional fuels. Ethanol can also only be used in conjunction with petrol, instead of acting as a direct replacement. Finally, and perhaps the biggest limitation to the expansion of the bioethanol market, is that production directly competes with the global food market. Since the renewable inputs for ethanol production are corn and sugarcane, a large-scale replacement of food lands with fuel lands will drive up food prices, including beef, whilst each acre of farmland will become more expensive too, which will in turn require heavier use of fertilisers. With our global population projected to reach 9.8 billion hungry consumers by 2050, it would seem that other alternatives must be found.

Several companies and government agencies have recently been putting significant capital into making algae fuel production commercially viable. Also known as green crude oil, most companies pursuing algae as a source of biofuels pump nutrient-rich water through borosilicate glass bioreactor tubes that are exposed to sunlight, in order to harness the process of photosynthesis to create a variety of hydrocarbon products. Depending on the part of the cells used, the hydrocarbons can be converted into various types of fuel. The lipid part of algal biomass can be extracted and converted into biodiesel whilst the carbohydrate content can be fermented into bioethanol. Early-acting venture capitalists saw the advantages in a renewable and carbon-neutral oil that, unlike ethanol, did not compete with the global food market. Furthermore, algae doesn’t require potable water, it can be grown on brackish, sea and even waste water. Most species are quickly-growing too: their short harvesting cycle of 1-10 days permits rapid cultivation of green oil. Perhaps their greatest selling point is that they can yield 50 times more fuel per unit area than biofuel crops. In fact, the United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum-fuel in the U.S., its production would require only 0.42% of the nation’s map, or about half of the land area of Maine. Such numbers saw major airlines jump on the bandwagon. As early as 2008, Lufthansa and Virgin had carried out trials on algal biofuels, as the aviation industry looked to seek out replacements for kerosene.

But all the research in algal fuels seems to have been a waste. Forecasts now predict only 3 to 5% of jet fuel needs could be provided by algae in 2050. Further, many pioneering algae companies, such as Solazyme, which used genetically engineered algae in a program for the U.S. Military, have now abandoned areas of production or switched their business development towards cosmetics and animal products. It has become strikingly clear that algae’s commercial viability is not in the near future. The lack of equipment and structures needed to grow algae in large quantities has limited production, whilst closed systems have not yet found a way to find a cheap source of sterile carbon dioxide. There are environmental concerns too. The energy required to centrifuge and refine green oil requires the burning of carbon-dioxide-emitting coal, whilst the nutrients used to cultivate algae are sourced from petroleum feedstocks, meaning that mass algal growth depends on the very substances it is meant to replace. For now, it seems that the algal fuel market has very much ‘run out of gas’.

Joule’s system produced diesel or petrol oil through photosynthesis of cyanobacteria. Courtesy of Joule Unlimited.

Joule’s system produced diesel or petrol oil through photosynthesis of cyanobacteria. Courtesy of Joule Unlimited.

Algae have not been the only small organisms to attract large-scale investment and global intrigue. In 2005, biotech company LS9 launched with ambitions to genetically engineer microbes, including E.coli, to make hydrocarbon fuels that would revolutionise the transport industry. It seemed like a great idea: all the environmental benefits that algal fuels provided but without the hassle of a complex refinery process, what was not to love? Furthermore, their backing by top-flight venture capitalists, who provided $81 million in investment, and leadership by premier scientists in the synthetic biology industry such as George Church, convinced many followers of LS9 that perhaps microbe engineering was the way forward. But when the San-Francisco-based company was sold in 2014 to Renewable Energy Group, who planned to use the technology to make smaller-volume specialty chemicals, alarm bells rang. It became clear that there was simply not enough capital around for the production of the large-scale manufacturing facilities required to produce the oil. Indeed, translating small-scale lab research into the mass market is not an easy process.

Using genetically-engineered microbes to make fuels that are cost-competitive will continue to be an issue. In fact, Jay Keasling, cofounder of LS9, admits “we’re never going to have biofuels compete with $20-a barrel oil”. When LS9 collapsed, Keasling went on to co-found Joule Unlimited, which pioneered the commercialisation of cyanobacteria-derived oils. Their technology consisted of flat, transparent solar panels with rotating films of bacteria in a bath of nutrients. Carbon dioxide bubbled in at the bottom and alkanes formed at the top. For $50 a barrel, they said, the hydrocarbon product could be purchased, and supply all of the transportation fuel for the United States from an area the size of the Texas panhandle. Whilst industrialising lab-based research proved tricky again, this time it was the plummeting of oil prices in 2014 and 2015 that proved the greatest obstacle to success. By the end of 2015, conventional oils could be purchased at just $60 a barrel and by 2017, Joule had closed its facilities.

There is no doubt that that the technology and research exists for the production of alternative and environmentally-friendly oils. But the rise and fall of the biofuel industry has revealed a plague of difficulties in converting world-changing ideas into commercial solutions. It would seem that for now at least, it is the bright sparks at Tesla that are driving us into the future.

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2017, The Guardian, “France to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040”, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jul/06/france-ban-petrol-diesel-cars-2040-emmanuel-macron-volvo

2018, News.com.au, “New Hyundai Ioniq: Australia’s cheapest electric car reviewed”, https://www.news.com.au/technology/innovation/motoring/hitech/new-hyundai-ioniq-australias-cheapest-electric-car-reviewed/news-story/ff1cbc851870be36d8dd3eabdfd54784

2016, Amnesty International, “Electric cars: Running on child labour?” https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/electric-cars-running-on-child-labour/

2015, BBC News, “Brazil's biofuel industry finds new sweetspot”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-33114119

2012, George Church and Ed Regis, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves”

2014, MIT Technology Review, “Why the Promise of Cheap Fuel from Super Bugs Fell Short”, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/524011/why-the-promise-of-cheap-fuel-from-super-bugs-fell-short/

2017, The Boston Globe, “How a biofuel dream turned into a nightmare”, https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/09/01/how-biofuel-dream-turned-into-nightmare/rt5ve7mE4YUZUOrqdaTqWK/story.html