A team of researchers from government and private industry has engineered a molecule that sidesteps expensive processing to produce diesel fuel from biomass.
“The fact that our microbes can produce a diesel fuel directly from biomass with no additional chemical modifications is exciting and important,” said Jay Keasling, lead researcher on the project and CEO of the Energy Department’s Joint BioEnergy Institute.
“Given that the costs of recovering biodiesel are nowhere near the costs required to distill ethanol, we believe our results can significantly contribute to the ultimate goal of producing scalable and cost-effective advanced biofuels and renewable chemicals,” Keasling added.
The discovery, which was described in a paper published today in Nature magazine, was made by a team consisting of Keasling and colleagues at JBEI, along with researchers at LS9, a privately held biofuels company based in south San Francisco.
Here is the abstract of the Nature article, “Microbial production of fatty-acid-derived fuels and chemicals from plant biomass” (subs. req’d):
Increasing energy costs and environmental concerns have emphasized the need to produce sustainable renewable fuels and chemicals. Major efforts to this end are focused on the microbial production of high-energy fuels by cost-effective ‘consolidated bioprocesses’. Fatty acids are composed of long alkyl chains and represent nature’s ‘petroleum’, being a primary metabolite used by cells for both chemical and energy storage functions. These energy-rich molecules are today isolated from plant and animal oils for a diverse set of products ranging from fuels to oleochemicals. A more scalable, controllable and economic route to this important class of chemicals would be through the microbial conversion of renewable feedstocks, such as biomass-derived carbohydrates. Here we demonstrate the engineering of Escherichia coli to produce structurally tailored fatty esters (biodiesel), fatty alcohols, and waxes directly from simple sugars. Furthermore, we show engineering of the biodiesel-producing cells to express hemicellulases, a step towards producing these compounds directly from hemicellulose, a major component of plant-derived biomass.
Here’s more of the news story:
The team made more than a dozen genetic modifications to an Escherichia coli, or E. coli, bacteria that allowed the organism to produce biodiesel fuel and other chemicals directly from plant matter.
The key changes tinkered with the bacteria’s fat-production regulating system to prevent it from ceasing to make oils once a certain amount had accumulated.
The team also tweaked the bacteria so that in addition to feeding on sugars in the plants they could ferment the plant cell walls themselves, vastly expanding the potential to use feedstocks like crop waste that are not already used for human and animal food.
The team said that engineering the organisms to produce fuel directly from the material eliminates expensive chemical processing steps that other biofuel production methods, especially cellulosic ethanol production, require.
“This amazing breakthrough represents a significant advancement toward the low-cost production from cellulosic biomass, which will lead to greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, lower costs, and an ability to leverage abundant non-food feedstocks throughout the world,” said LS9 CEO Bill Haywood.
An article in Nature cited an analysis by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory for LS9 that says the process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent compared with standard diesel fuel.
LS9 claims to be the only company making finished fuel directly from renewable raw materials in a single fermentation step. The company won $25 million in follow-on funding late last year (ClimateWire, Oct. 30, 2009).
Eric Steen, a JBEI researcher on the project, stressed that the team aims to increase the speed, efficiency and total output of the process. “There is still much more research to do before this process becomes commercially feasible,” he said.
Iberdrola SA, the largest owner of wind-power generators, is investing about $3 billion a year in the U.S. as it develops more projects in the biggest electricity market, Chief Executive Jose Ignacio Sanchez Galan said.
“We are very pleased about how things are going for all our businesses in the U.S.,” Galan said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The Spanish utility is building on its $20 billion investment in the U.S. using government incentives, acquisitions and its experience developing windmills in Europe and China.
The Bilbao-based power company generates more than half its electricity outside Spain after expanding abroad to avoid relying only on its regulated domestic market.
Iberdrola is carrying out a plan to sell assets worth 2.5 billion euros ($3.5 billion) following the purchases of U.S. utility Energy East Corp. in 2008 and Scottish Power Ltd. in the U.K. in 2007.
Iberdrola Renovables SA, the utility’s renewable-energy unit, said on Oct. 20 it had won $546 million in U.S. grants for renewable-energy projects and forecast it would get about $430 million in 2010. President Barack Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. renewable energy by 2012.
FPL Group Inc. and BP Plc led a record 9,900 megawatts of wind-power installations in the U.S. last year as a federal stimulus package increased incentives for renewable-energy investment, the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association said on Jan. 26.
EDP-Energias de Portugal SA, the biggest power company in Portugal, said on Nov. 18 that it will spend $4 billion through 2012 on new wind farms in the U.S.
Texas, Iowa and California have the most wind-power capacity in the U.S., which leads the world with more than 35,000 megawatts, or enough for about 9.7 million homes, the American Wind Energy Association said.
Iberdrola’s installed capacity totals 44,242 megawatts, of which gas-fired plants account for 30 percent, renewable energy 24 percent and hydropower plants 22 percent. The Iberdrola Renovables unit estimates it will increase its installed capacity to 12,500 megawatts by the end of this year.
Iberdrola shares have dropped 6 percent this year, valuing the company at 32.8 billion euros.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner touted efforts to build an energy-efficient economy while he visited Minnesota businesses Thursday, and announced an additional $5 billion in tax credits for “green” manufacturers.
The tax credits will go to manufacturers that produce energy-efficient products. That’s on top of about $100 billion set aside for clean energy as part of the federal stimulus package.
Geithner toured Honeywell International Inc.’s plant and took part in a discussion with local politicians. He also visited Standard Heating and Air Conditioning in Plymouth, Minn., which installs energy efficient temperature control systems.
He emphasized the need for the federal government to work closely with states and companies to spark job growth.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with financial engineers,” Geithner said. “Today I got to spend time with real engineers.”
Geithner’s visit came only hours after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, part of a broader White House push to take the administration’s agenda on tour. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stopped in Florida on Thursday to announce plans to spend $8 billion on high-speed rail across the nation.
The Treasury secretary cited Honeywell as a company that is pushing innovative, energy-efficient technologies despite the nation being in the midst of a recession. This includes the company’s thermostat systems, which optimize energy use so less is wasted, said Honeywell spokesman Mark Hamel. He said half of the company’s products are considered energy efficient.
Geithner stressed a need for the government to reach out and support businesses, cities, banks and education programs to get employment numbers up. The administration also needs to gain back the confidence of the American people, he said.
“We can’t do this alone. Ultimately our success will depend on you,” he said.
Geithner’s stop in Minnesota came just one day after he was questioned by lawmakers on his involvement in the AIG bailout.
“Yesterday is part of the privilege of office: You do hard, necessary things that are unpopular,” he said Thursday.
It was music to the ears of carbon traders and clean-energy company executives to hear President Obama urge Congress to pass energy and climate change legislation that places a cost on greenhouse gas emissions.
“To create more of these clean-energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives,” Obama proclaimed in his first State of the Union address.
“And yes,” he said, “it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”
Obama thanked the House for passing a bill in June, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). At its core, that bill would create an economywide cap-and-trade program that ratchets down industrial carbon dioxide emissions over time by distributing a declining number of pollution permits to electric utilities and factories. Support in the Senate for cap and trade is much more tenuous, because of concern about the economic impact and the creation of an international commodity market for carbon allowances and offset contracts.
“This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate,” Obama said.
Dirk Forrister, director of Natsource, a New York-based asset manager in carbon and renewable energy markets, said extending an olive branch to Republicans is critical to getting that bill passed out of the Senate, and Obama did just that.
‘A deal to be had on climate’
“He acknowledged the differences with the Republicans and said he’d work with them,” Forrister said after the speech. “So I took that as a real encouraging speech for climate and clean energy. There’s a deal to be had on climate if they can get past the partisanship.”
Forrister, former chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton, and Henry Derwent, CEO of the Geneva-based International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), urged Obama to focus on passing a cap-and-trade scheme this year, rather than jettisoning the House approach for a less comprehensive energy bill. They called on Obama to “establish a clear timeline for passage of an economywide cap-and-trade bill.”
IETA represents some of the world’s largest investment banks and trading houses, most of which have carbon trading divisions poised to inject billions of dollars into a U.S. and European carbon emissions market.
The group asserts that a global financial trade in carbon credits, offset contracts and derivatives would fuel investment in clean-energy projects aimed at slashing global emissions. But it has long said it won’t happen unless Congress creates a U.S. market to buttress any global agreement on emissions reductions and financing programs for developing countries.
Obama placed energy and climate in the context of jobs, perhaps not suprisingly, given rising political pressure to turn his attention to bread-and-butter economic issues.
“I took it as a sign of real seriousness,” Forrister said.
Pitching a race to jobs and green technology
Obama emphasized an emerging race among the United States, China and Europe to capitalize on new clean-energy and battery technology to replace coal and oil, which dominate the world’s energy use.
“There is a race in the global theater,” Forrister said. “Folks in America don’t really like a defeatist attitude. They want a winning attitude.”
Ken Newcombe, CEO of C-Quest Capital, based in Washington, said the mere mention of “green jobs” should be a positive sign to the carbon trading and energy finance community.
“If he mentions green jobs, that’s talking big that he’ll continue on the climate security bill,” he said.
Before the speech, Newcombe warned that mentioning climate directly could complicate the political environment, but he said many investors are already convinced Obama is serious about the issue.
“The president turned up in Copenhagen and was singlehandedly responsible for getting accord out and breaking the deadlock,” he said. “That was a remarkable sign of his commitment.”
For his part, Obama also mentioned some items popular with the GOP: zero-emissions nuclear power plants, oil and gas drilling, biofuels and clean-coal technology.
The Obama Administration formally embraced the Copenhagen Accord on global warming on Thursday, a day after the president urged a fractious U.S. Congress to get to work on comprehensive legislation to stem the nation’s emissions.
U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern gave notice to the United Nations that the country will aim for a 17 percent emissions cut in carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming by 2020, from 2005 levels.
The move, which confirmed the goal set by the White House late last year, was conditional on other countries also submitting their pollution-cutting targets to the accord, Stern said.
The condition was likely aimed at fence-sitters in Congress who do not want to see the United States commit to steps on fighting global warming unless other major polluters like China and India go along.
John Kerry, the Democratic U.S. senator working on a compromise climate bill, insisted that Congress would put a price on carbon, forcing companies to pay for their global warming pollution.
But he followed the lead of President Barack Obama, who called for a comprehensive climate plan during Wednesday’s State of the Union speech without mentioning one of its most controversial and complicated elements, cap-and-trade, which would allow companies to trade rights to pollute.
“It’s open to how you price carbon,” Kerry told Reuters. “People need to relax and look at all the ways you might price carbon. We’re not pinned down to one approach.”
Kerry, who is working on the bill with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, strongly rejected the idea that progress had bogged down. “I just don’t agree with that interpretation at all,” he said, adding that Senate negotiations were “making headway.”