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Beyond Fossil Fuels: John Melo on Renewable Fuels

The CEO of Amyris Biotechnologies weighs in on the hurdles facing his industry
biofuels, renewable energy, petroleum alternative



COURTESY OF AMYRIS

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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?
Like any new industry, biofuels face their own share of challenges—from environmental to cost to infrastructure compatibility. Amyris, however, has chosen a unique path to overcome current challenges. We are perfecting a new technology that makes hydrocarbons—the same components found in petroleum fuels. Therefore, our fuels can be cost-competitive and compatible with current infrastructure. We are also able to access the scale of the most successful renewable platform in the world—from an environmental and cost perspective—Brazilian sugarcane. It has the potential to deliver an 80 percent or better reduction in total carbon footprint and enables us to make suite of high-value transportation fuel products. We also believe in the promise of cellulosic technology and are awaiting further development in this area so we can plug in our technology.

Are there obstacles to scaling up biofuels to serve a national or global customer base?
The key to scaling biofuels for a national and global customer base is identifying the proper way for governments to define policies. There are numerous opportunities for us—especially with the new administration. Our biggest fear, however, is the potential for political intervention in defining specific feedstocks or products and therefore reserving a disproportionate amount of government incentives. We believe that government support is essential but should be biased toward lowest-cost and lowest-environmental-impact biofuels rather than focusing on a particular technology.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in biofuels? Or does that, too, need further modification?
With advanced biofuels like Amyris, the existing infrastructure is capable and available to facilitate the deployment of renewable fuels to consumers. The issue for fuels like ours will not be existing infrastructure. The industry will need to focus on the best technologies and enforce support of those with the highest reduction in carbon footprint while making investments to quickly scale the deployment of better fuels into the market.

Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
We are exploring a number of avenues for raising money in this climate. We see a continued appetite to support products that can have a significant impact on the environment. And although it is unclear how deep or prolonged the current crisis will be, one thing remains—without government support we could be without significant progress in innovation in the renewable energy sector by the end of the year.

From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for biofuels: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
Neither traditional oil nor alternative energy will be our biggest competitors. The biggest threat is that we are fostering an environment with the wrong incentives to do the right thing. Today we live in a society which turns a blind eye to the total cost of carbon. Businesses thrive by putting more carbon into the atmosphere, and there are no incentives to curb their behavior. Consumers, too, are thriving without regard for their carbon footprint because there is no mechanism in place to stop them. We need to change the way we live by becoming more transparent in what we do to the environment. While we have made strides in environmental awareness, there is still a lot of work to be done in this area in order for any environmental solution to have real impact.

Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
We want to be cost-competitive with the average cost of finding and producing a new barrel of oil around the world. In addition to cost, the industry should also look at delivering a significant reduction in carbon footprint. This is our aim in the next five years.

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