Changing patterns of investment in biofuels

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The research and development of biofuels is beginning to attract investment from large international companies, including those traditionally associated with their fossil fuel predecessors.

A series of news articles published in Nature evaluate recent shifts in interest and investment in jatropha and algae as biofuel feedstocks, as well as techniques to produce cellulosic ethanol and liquid fuel directly from biomass (content requires subscription or payment).

With the announcement this summer that BP had pulled out of a $160 million joint venture with D1 oils to accelerate the cultivation of Jatropha curcus, the prospect of further large scale investment in the shrub as a biofuel feedstock faded.

Due to its ability to grow on land unsuitable for agriculture, cultivating jatropha was previously touted as a way of avoiding competition for resources with food crops. However, a recent controversial study suggests that jatropha requires much more water than other prospective bioenergy crops.

Despite falling investment in jatropha over the last year, various remaining projects suggest that the crop could still play a role in meeting future sustainable energy needs. Their scope is broad ranging, from genetic research on the development of high yielding seed strains, to initiatives operating on a local scale which incentivise farmers to cultivate jatropha alongside existing crops. A novel method of jatropha oil transesterification for use in biodiesel synthesis was reported in  Biotechnology for Biofuels earlier this year.

While interest and investment in Jatropha has waned, algal biofuels have emerged very quickly as perhaps the most promising source of biofuel for the future. The willingness of oil companies to invest was punctuated by the announcement in July that ExxonMobil would join J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc. in a project (potentially worth $600-million) attempting to up-scale the production of biofuels from algae (see our previous blog post here). BP & Chevron
have also invested in Martek Biosciences and NREL respectively.

The potential benefits of algae as a ‘green’ source of energy are several fold; they can be cultured using land and water unsuitable for agriculture, and consume carbon dioxide during photosynthetic growth. Scientific advance in algal biofuel technology is difficult to gauge, however, as private companies withhold their research from peer review and publication.

In comparison to algae, the uptake from companies expected to be involved in the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol production (the conversion of agricultural residues and municipal waste into useful fuel), has been slow. Fewer investments than initially expected have been secured, due in part to the economic downturn and previous financial losses in maize ethanol.

This has resulted in an increased focus on the reduction of production costs; increasing the efficiency of fungal enzymes used in ethanol production and using engineered microorganisms that convert cellulose directly to ethanol are two approaches currently being explored. Attention has also turned to crops and industrial process by-products not previously considered or grown for use as feedstocks in bioethanol production. Research published in Biotechnology for Biofuels looks at spent grain from the brewing process, and blemished watermelons discarded from the annual crop. In time, fuels derived from biomass which replicate the hydrocarbon fuels in use today might prove more attractive to investors than bioethanol. The technology to convert biomass to liquid fuel in this way is in its infancy, however the benefits of the approach include the generation of fuel products that would be tailored for the existing petrol-focused infrastructure. In 2008, Virunt and investor Royal Dutch Shell announced plans to develop technology for converting plant sugars into hydrocarbons similar to those produced at petroleum refineries, and other companies including Chevron and Volkswagen have also invested in projects to develop biomass to liquid fuel technology.

Biotechnology for Biofuels welcomes high-quality studies describing technological and operational advances in the above production techniques, as well as others covered by the journal scope.

You can browse or search published articles, or submit your manuscript for consideration, online.

Gerbens-Leenes, W., Hoekstra, A., & van der Meer, T. (2009). The water footprint of bioenergy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (25), 10219-10223 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812619106

Kumari, A., Mahapatra, P., Garlapati, V., & Banerjee, R. (2009). Enzymatic transesterification of Jatropha oil Biotechnology for Biofuels, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1754-6834-2-1

Xiros, C., & Christakopoulos, P. (2009). Enhanced ethanol production from brewer’s spent grain by a Fusarium oxysporum consolidated system Biotechnology for Biofuels, 2 (4) DOI: 10.1186/1754-6834-2-4

Fish, W., Bruton, B., & Russo, V. (2009). Watermelon juice: a promising feedstock supplement, diluent, and nitrogen supplement for ethanol biofuel production Biotechnology for Biofuels, 2 (18) DOI: 10.1186/1754-6834-2-18

 

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Cindy Jensen

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