If there is any doubt about the promise and feasibility of renewable energy, consider its true source – human innovation paired with a visionary entrepreneurial spirit.
This might sound a bit trite at first, but it is hard to deny (and I’m a bit of curmudgeon myself) when reading Fred Krupp’s new book Earth: The Sequel (The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming). Krupp is the president of Environmental Defense Fund and in Earth:The Sequel he outlines emerging technologies and methodologies under development by enterprising and forward thinking individuals and companies in the ever more urgent quest to transform our energy economy.
Krupp devotes a chapter to startups like Amyris BioTechnologies of Emeryville, California, working to create biofuel solutions that address the principal problems of fuel derived from corn and palm oil.
Biofuels, especially ethanol, has been getting a lot of press these days, and much of it is bad. (see my post here on 3P for an example – make sure to read the comments for a counter-argument).
Amyris develops technologies in synthetic biology and “platform technology”. The company launched in 2003 with a grant of $12 million from the the Institute for One World Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their first objective – a “million-to-one shot” – was to find a way to alleviate suffering from Malaria in developing countries, particularly Asia and Africa. The more effective and faster-acting treatment for Malaria is artemisinin. The problem with artemisinin is it’s expense and the land required to grow the wormwood from which it is derived.
Through an innovative process using synthetic biology, Amyris has created a way to produce artemisinin cheaply and relatively quickly. Amyris takes no profit for the sale of this product in the developing world.
But that was just the beginning.
The Other Biofuel Revolution
The next goal for Amyris is biofuel. Corn-based ethanol has an energy density on 70% that of gasoline and it’s production is energy-intensive, emitting large amounts of CO2 in its harvest, manufacture, and transportation.
Amyris is well on its way toward developing a new kind of “bio-engineered” fuel, using a technology of “engineered microbes”. By building microbes based on sugars processed through a rapid enzymatic pathway, they are creating a large-scale fermentation process that offers a more energy-intensive and less polluting fuel than ethanol. They have experiments underway to develop bio-diesel at lower cost and with less environmental impact than palm oil. They’ve even worked on a substitute for Jet-A (jet fuel).
I can’t do the work of Amyris justice in just a few short paragraphs (biology and chemistry weren’t my strongest subjects in school), and there are many other innovative, smart, and visionary people working on biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and other energy sources and solutions for a sustainable energy economy. Stuff not often discussed in mainstream press, let alone supported and discussed by government leaders, who would have us stuck solely in corn ethanol and developing the Arctic Nation Wildlife Refuge.
Certainly there are problems and obstacles to be overcome with any new technology. Amyris co–founder Jack Newman is well aware of the “perils and pitfalls” of their work. He love the satirical headline from the Onion:
Scientific Breakthrough Fixes Problems of Last Scientific Breakthrough”
Nothing worthwhile comes easy – and there is surely no “quick fix”. But Newman sees potential not only for a viable fuel source, but also for the social benefits from a “re-balancing” for world demand of corn and sugar.
If you’re interested at all in what companies like Amyris is doing, get a copy of Krupp’s book and read about the best renewable energy source there is.