The need for such progress is pressing. Currently, the ethanol industry
in booming thanks to it being a "low hanging fruit" in that it is
relatively easy to produce from a chemical standpoint. However, the
demand for sugar crops to make ethanol is driving
up food prices.
Meanwhile, faced with high gas prices at the pump, more and
more people are switching to ethanol. Those who don't are hit with both
high food prices and high gas prices. While long-term solutions like cellulosic
ethanol promise a possible eventual solution, there's no sign that they are
ready for the market.
LS9 looks to take advantage of this state of crisis and use it to leverage its
own unique solution. LS9 has created special genetically engineered yeast
Coli bacteria. These friendly microbes can take biowaste and
weeds (instead of sugar) and use "previously undiscovered metabolic
pathways" to convert the sugar components of cellulose into long chain
hydrocarbons, resembling crude oil.
Such hydrocarbons are advantageous over ethanol in that they pack a high energy
density at a low weight. They could also be used to make plastic or other
petroleum products and be refined using traditional techniques. The
process, according to LS9 is carbon neutral, minimizing its environmental
impact. And its energy efficient -- 65 percent less energy is required
than in standard commercial ethanol production.
The company is being extremely secretive about how it modified the microbes --
about the only details available are that it appears that the microorganisms
take fatty acids and break them down into hydrocarbons, which are then
excreted. From a chemistry standpoint, this likely involves either
breaking off the hydrocarbon chain of triglycerides from their glycol backbones
and then decarboxylating them, or cutting a hydrocarbon chain off at an
unsaturated carbon bond, effectively splitting the fatty acid chains in two.
If it can live up to its bold claims, the biggest challenge LS9 faces is
scaling its top-secret formula up to an industrial production level. They
current have several reactors, the largest of which can make 1,000 liters of
fuel. However to satisfy the millions of oil barrel demand, this would
need to expand incredibly.
Whether LS9 can scale its product and keep costs down will likely make or break
it. It faces tough competition from the fuel
cell industry and microbial
hydrogen. However, even if it can't find a home in the biofuel
production business, it may still hold significant potential for relatively
uncharted bioplastics market.