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Amyris's biofuel plant in Brazil is one of the largest test deployments of sugar-based microbial biodiesel to date. It should be an important test of the new technology's commercial potential.  (Source:
Will company offer the best biofuel yet, or just another pricey alternative?

A new kind of fuel production has launched in Brazil.  Unlike ethanol plants in the country which turn sugarcane to ethanol or traditional oil refining, the new plant produces the equivalent of diesel fuel formed from the waste byproducts of microbes that "eat" and reprocess the sugar.  Built by Emeryville, CA-based Amryis Technologies, the plant aims to produce 10,000 gallons a year (approximately 238 barrels).

While biodiesel and biofuels are not exactly a new concept, this is one of the largest test deployments to date of sugar based biodiesel, particularly of a microbial scheme (most biodiesel is formed from plant oils, such as palm oil).  The plant aims to produce, with government regulation and carbon taxes, fuel at $60/barrel (approximately $1.43 per gallon).  This indicates that their technology may be nearing cost competitiveness with cellulosic ethanol manufacturers -- the best of which, Coskata, claims to be on the verge of $1.00 per gallon ethanol.

Advantages of the cellulosic ethanol include being able to come from waste materials unlike the biodiesel that’s formed from sugar crops.  However, the biodiesel packs more energy per gallon and the microbes could eventually be genetically engineered to process cellulose as well.  It’s hard to tell which solution costs less, given that the target costs for the biodiesel are post-subsidy, while Coskata's targets are pre-subsidy.

The plant will go online in 2011 and should looks to sell its high-grade fuel products primarily overseas as Brazil doesn't use much diesel fuel.

One key advantage of the biodiesel is like ethanol it lacks the harmful impurities found in standard oil.  The fuel features less sulfur, less carbon monoxide, and fewer nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other emissions, compared with petroleum diesel.  States Neil Renninger, founder and chief technical officer of Amyris, "The greenness of the fuel might drive a few people to it, but we need to be cost competitive."

The plant will use existing sugarcane delivery infrastructure.  However, it faces tough competition.  Sugarcane ethanol production is much more energy efficient than that of its American brethren, corn ethanol.  Sugarcane waste is burned and the production consumes less electricity, leading to a net electricity surplus.  Corn ethanol, meanwhile consumes more electricity to produce than it generates.  Lester Lave, a professor of economics and co-director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, praises sugarcane ethanol, stating, "The net energy invested in sugarcane ethanol is not very high and leads to huge gains relative to the gain from corn."

However, sugarcane is unfortunately limited by geography, as it grows best in tropical regions which are warmer and receive more sunlight.  A few states -- Hawaii, Louisiana, and Florida do have conditions conducive to moderate sugarcane yields.  A corn-sugarcane hybrid called corncane might be viable across a broader range of states, though, while retaining much of sugarcane's benefits.

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RE: They should stick to Rum
By Danger D on 7/10/2009 11:06:45 AM , Rating: 2
Corn right now is about 6 cents per pound. A pound of corn flakes is around $4. Do the math. Biofuels is not what's driving up your food prices. Greedy food companies and an exploding (population-wise, I mean) middle class in China and India are the main reasons.

Biofuels have a lot of potential, especially if America bucks up and shares seed, fertilizer and better ag practices with third-world farmers so they can grow their own food and biofuels instead of relying on aid from us.

RE: They should stick to Rum
By Danger D on 7/10/2009 11:09:11 AM , Rating: 1
Not that I blame the third-world countries for taking aid. The reason they're in this mess is because for decades America depressed crop prices through crop supports and subsidies to the point where prices were below the cost of production.

We priced poor farmers in other countries right out of the market and made them dependent on the developed world.

RE: They should stick to Rum
By Spuke on 7/10/2009 1:00:47 PM , Rating: 2
I'm still trying to figure out why we import food.

RE: They should stick to Rum
By menace on 7/10/2009 2:06:59 PM , Rating: 1
Corn right now is about 6 cents per pound. A pound of corn flakes is around $4. Do the math.

Yeah but corn (the type grown for human consumption) is like 95% water and has a big inedible cob in the middle. After you remove the inedible parts and cook it, I wouldn't be surpised if it takes 20 lbs of corn to make 1 lb of flakes. Also I'm guessing the "6 cents a pound" variety is common feed corn which is cheaper to produce. To "do the math" you first have to understand all your variables and coefficients.

RE: They should stick to Rum
By Danger D on 7/10/2009 2:33:09 PM , Rating: 2
A bushel is just corn, no cobs. One bushel = 56 pounds of feed corn. A bushel is about $3.50 right now.

Feed corn (not the kind we get in a can or at BBQs, but the kind cows eat) is what is used to make ethanol. The starch goes to ethanol, the protein goes into dried distillers grains, which are used as feed.

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