The final part of a 3 part series on advanced biofuels. In the first part, I explained why I was attending a biofuels conference and summarized discussions about interactions between the government and the biofuels industry. In the second part, I explored the issues of funding. Now it’s time to talk about the state of the science and what this all means for the future.
The final day of the conference was all about being “feedstock agnostic” in terms of what you give to your genetically engineered, “proprietary organisms.” This was the really cool day where they all talked about what their companies actually did. Some companies were turning biomass into sugars (which I think then gets turned into oils, either by chemical rearrangement or possibly by feeding them to something else). Some companies were growing algae, which can then be turned into biofuel. And still other companies were going straight to oils, using special bacteria that would take a feedstock and secrete oil in response to it. It seemed like they all had bench-top proven technology. The devil was going to be how to make millions of gallons of their product on vastly larger scales. They all had plans and they all had pilot facilities in the making. It was very exciting and the anticipation for what the future will hold was high.
Although there is still significant future distance to travel, the technology had come a long way. The leader of the conference made some joking remarks about how the common technological aspects are glossed over as being something simple. “And as you see her on slide 6, we just took the bacteria and rearranged its genes so it would do what we want.” He wasn’t really exaggerating either, as it did seem like all the presentations had some words about genetic modification, but at the same time it was presented as if it was no big deal. Five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to just swap some genes here and there and have it work. The advances in cell-level and genetic modifications have flung open the gate for some enormous opportunity. My favorite presentation was by the group who have moved even further beyond genetic engineering. They had taken to selectively evolving their microbes by applying environmental pressures and then breeding generation upon generations. This blows my mind, and at the same time give me so much hope. Drilling for oil seems so antiquated in terms of what it takes. More difficult oil just takes more risk, more brute force, and more strength in terms of technology to combat the forces of physics. At what point do stop making things stronger and more complex, leading to greater dangers for rig workers? At what point do all the negatives outweigh the positives? After the Gulf oil spill, it seems like there is no limit to peril and damage, but then there was no other option. Now there I another choice, and making the oil ourselves is the new elegant solution, that will lead us into the future.
To wrap everything up, here is what I learned:
- Many advanced biofuels technologies have been proven on a small-scale. Some have been proven on a pilot scale. Full scale production is the next step.
- To get to full scale, further support in legislative policy (ex: RFS, EISA) need to be administered.
- Policy will help support monetary decisions, which require equally monumental financial creativity to get to the current cost-competitive point of oil.
- The policy, supported financial instruments, and technological development timeline need to be decoupled from oil volatility to achieve progress. Otherwise we will continue to pogo stick in place.