Back when biofuels were in vogue and everybody in the industry, as well as what seemed like a majority of politicians, were singing kumbaya in the name of solving all our woes, California company LS9 was seen as one of the rising stars in the next generation biofuels movement. The reason: they were (and are still) developing a genetically engineered microbe that can take raw plant material and turn it directly into a fuel (diesel and/or gasoline) that you would be able to drop into your existing fuel tank and your car wouldn’t so much as even notice. This type of biofuel is called a “drop-in” fuel.
Imagine that: a facility that accepts any kind of woody waste or raw plant material as input and produces tanks and tanks of gasoline as its output on a daily basis—nothing else needed and no other steps in between. If it could be developed, you might start to grasp how revolutionary such a process would be.
Of course, since those heydays of biofuel in-vogueness, biofuels have become mired in the ugly world of Corn Belt politics, controversies over food vs. fuel, land use issues, and debates about whether or not biofuels are even better for the environment than fossil fuels to begin with. Looking back, it was amazing how quickly the promise of biofuels all fell apart. But that didn’t stop companies like LS9 from continuing to do research on what are still, fundamentally, potentially game changing advances.
And now LS9, in a paper published in the prestigious scientific journal “Science,” says that their last hurdle to actually creating some kind of super bug that can do what they set out to do—change raw plant matter into fuel—has been jumped. The discovery opens the door to completely engineering a microbe that can fulfill the promise of a cheap, renewable drop-in fuel made from materials that don’t compete with food.
“This scientific discovery made by the LS9 team is game changing for our company and the advanced biofuels industry,” said Bill Haywood, the company’s CEO. “This remarkable breakthrough is yet another successful step in LS9’s progress toward delivering a broad portfolio of renewable fuels and chemicals to the world market as quickly as possible.”
After identifying a gene in the common e. coli bacteria (yes the same family that can lead to food poisoning—you all remember the spinach-from-Mexico scare) that is responsible for creating the same chemicals that are found in all fossil fuels, the LS9 researchers are set to engineer a microbe that will include both the currently discovered gene as well as genes that allow the microbes to metabolize any kind of raw plant material which the LS9 researchers reported back in January.
“This is a one step sugar- to-diesel process that does not require elevated temperatures, high pressures, toxic inorganic catalysts, hydrogen or complex unit operations” said Steve del Cardayre, Vice President of Research and Development at LS9. “We believe in simple processes at LS9, and the simplicity of this process has allowed us to successfully accelerate its scale-up and development.”
To date LS9 hasn’t really hit the headlines, essentially flying under the radar. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t attracted the attention of some substantial backers. LS9’s funder list currently includes such major venture investment firms as Chevron Technology Ventures, Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. LS9 has also set up a partnership with Procter & Gamble to develop bio-derived chemicals of the future. If this breakthrough truly delivers what it promises, the opportunity to completely alter how we fuel our vehicles without changing a thing about what or how we drive is staggering.