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Beyond Fossil Fuels: Harrison Dillon on Biofuels

The co-founder, president and chief technology officer of Solazyme weighs in on the hurdles facing his industry
biofuels, algal fuel, biodiesel, microbial fuel



COURTESY OF SOLAZYME

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Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of biofuels? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
Speaking from the perspective of our microbial renewable oil production technology platform and advanced biofuels, the majority of the true technical hurdles for us have already been crossed. The business plan for Solazyme has been to fit into the existing multitrillion-dollar liquid transportation fuel infrastructure; for example, we are using standard industrial fermentation technology and standard oil refining technology to manufacture ASTM-compliant fuels that can be distributed through standard gas stations into standard, unmodified vehicles. The goal in front of us now is to continue to optimize and customize strains and processes tailored to specific products as well as to continue driving down the cost of our oil production process. Solazyme's obstacles are more along the lines of classic commercialization process development than attempting to demonstrate proof of concept.

The long-term prospects for renewable oil production are very good; policymakers and the public at large understand that there are larger and greater environmental and energy security needs driving the imperative for these advanced biofuel technologies to come online. Putting Solazyme's process into dedicated commercial plants is the more near-term step. The hurdles there involve obtaining project financing during an unprecedented economic crisis. The good news is that Solazyme's technology fits neatly into existing infrastructure and produces fuels that meet current specifications, which minimizes the amount of new technology that has to be created to design and construct a commercial plant. Once we see the project financing markets opening again this will be a hurdle that can be crossed. In the meantime, looking at creative ways to retrofit existing equipment is a good interim strategy.

Are there obstacles to scaling up biofuels to serve a larger national or global customer base?
Our company has a decidedly global view in our approach to renewable oil production. Solazyme's unique microbial conversion technology process allows algae to produce oil in standard conversion technology facilities quickly, efficiently and at commercial scale. Such facilities already exist today, which is an enormous advantage in that we can perform our novel process in commercial-scale facilities that have already been built to serve global markets.

Algae is an incredibly feedstock-flexible platform because it has developed over billions of years to eat just about anything in order to make oil. Our technology allows renewable oil commercial plants to be located virtually anywhere next to the available agricultural waste streams (wood chips in the Northwest, corn stover/stalks in the Midwest, and bagasse/sugarcane in the South and in Asia). This feedstock flexibility allows us to locate facilities worldwide and not be dependent on a feedstock that is geographically limited.

These oils are tailored not only for biofuel production, but also as replacements for fossil petroleum and plant oils in a diverse range of products running from green household cleaning supplies to cosmetics and foods. With a large portion of the global population getting a significant proportion of their daily caloric intake from cooking oils, this technology is a true bridge from inedible agricultural waste to oils and foods. It is a solution (food and fuel, not food vs. fuel) technology that can be deployed in many parts of the world. Imagine a third-world country able to supply a portion of its oil needs (both natural oils and fuel needs) using this platform. The fact that our plants can be placed anywhere and are not sunlight-dependent is a tremendous advantage.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in biofuels? Or does that, too, need further modification?
The answer to this question depends on whether you are making fuels that meet existing fuel standards or if you are making fuels that are fundamentally new. Fuels that do not meet existing standards and must either be used as a blend stock or be put through a full regulatory process are not going to be able to leverage the existing energy infrastructure. There are several reasons why we produce crude oil and then refine it into fuels using standard oil-refining techniques rather than invent new molecules or new fuels. One is that there are no inventive steps needed on the infrastructure side of the equation. In addition, refining crude oil into fuels costs about 50 cents per gallon at commercial scale. We feel that it makes much more sense to focus resources on reducing the cost of making crude oil as rapidly as possible and accept a modest refining cost rather than focus resources on making fundamentally new fuels that will need to go through multiyear regulatory reviews that cost tens of millions of dollars and will require new infrastructure to be built before they can be commercialized.

Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
The freezing of the capital markets and large project financing will have an impact on the speed to commercialization for these advanced biofuel technologies. It is impossible to predict how long the markets will remain frozen. We think it will require companies to be creative and innovative in how they move forward. For example, it might mean that rather than building greenfield fit-for-purpose plants for advanced biofuel production, retrofitting existing plants would be a quicker path to reaching commercialization. The current state of the capital markets will also force companies to be more responsible with their money and will likely weed out companies that have been built on the assumption that venture capital and public financing would always flow freely.

From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for biofuels: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
The market size and the need for renewable energy solutions is tremendous. It is going to take more than one approach to tackle these issues. We actually don't see these varying technologies as direct competition. In fact we see them existing together and actually in some cases complementing each other. For example, in the liquid transportation arena, we believe that for personal transportation needs like commuting to work and getting around town it makes sense to use electric vehicles that run on "clean, green electrons" from wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal, not gasoline. We focus on developing diesel and jet fuels because the industries that use them will not be able to replace their heavy-duty liquid transportation fuels anytime in the near future. By offering a cleaner, sustainable alternative like Soladiesel or Solafuel Jet that have a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 30 percent reduction in particulate emissions over even today's petroleum-based ultralow-sulfur diesel, we can make strides in slowing global warming while reducing particulates and air pollution that plague our industrial areas.

Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
Getting to fuel economics is crucial. The fact of the matter is that no matter how environmentally conscious and clean your fuel is, people will not pay more for a gallon of diesel. As with any process development refinement, getting the last mile of cost saved is the longest mile—we are close, though. Solazyme is continuing to drive down the cost of production; we are on target to be at fuel economics of $60–$80 per barrel of crude algal oil in 24–36 months.

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