The Next Generation of Biofuels

Companies are poised to go commercial with gasoline substitutes made from grass, algae and the ultimate source: engineered microorganisms

Venter says that his newest company, Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, Calif., is well on its way to overcoming one of the hurdles: his microbes can be reused multiple times because he has engineered them to release fat rather than store it. In addition, he has found a way to prevent the unwanted spread of these organisms should they ever be accidentally released from a facility; they can survive only if they are fed a chemical they cannot produce on their own. Synthetic Genomics will soon be testing the approach on a commercial level. “We’ve had some really major breakthroughs,” Venter says.

Hedged Bets in a High-Stakes Game
Other companies are well on their way, too. San Diego biotech firm Sapphire Energy claims it could be selling gasoline made from algae by 2011. Solix Biofuels, a start-up based in Fort Collins, Colo., plans to have its first pilot facility running by this summer. “A lot of people said we’d never fly, we’d never walk on the moon, the lightbulb would never work. What it takes is a lot of discipline and diligence to move forward,” says Rich Schoonover, Solix’s chief operating officer.

So which kind of microbe will save the earth? Samir Kaul, a partner at Khosla Ventures, a San Francisco Bay Area venture capital firm that backs start-ups pursuing both approaches, says the companies that survive will be the ones whose fuels can compete with oil at $40 a barrel. Venter agrees: “I think that’s going to end up being the biggest challenge: Can we build these really large facilities and do it in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way?” It’s a high-stakes game, and even the scientists are hedging their bets; some of Venter’s projects involve cellulosic biofuels, similar to what Keasling is doing. And despite Rittmann’s allegiance to cyanobacteria, he is also working with other microbes.

Whoever produces abundant biofuels could end up making more than just big bucks—they will make history. “The companies, the countries, that succeed in this will be the economic winners of the next age to the same extent that the oil-rich nations are today,” Venter says. He even suggests, in his characteristically unabashed way, that those companies and nations could end up igniting a second industrial revolution—one fueled by the need to undo the environmental consequences of the first.

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