The basic concept behind advanced biofuels, using bioengineered microorganisms to digest organic matter and produce hydrocarbons, is sound, Alan Shaw says. The flaw is basing an industry on plants.
Alan Shaw, the chemist and executive who led a six-year effort to turn inedible crops into fuels to displace gasoline, has renounced the industry he helped pioneer and decided the future instead lies with natural gas.
Formerly chief executive officer of Codexis Inc., the first advanced biofuel technology company to trade on a U.S. exchange, Shaw now says it’s impossible to economically turn crop waste, wood and plants like switchgrass into fuel. He’s trying to do it instead with gas, in his new post as CEO of Calysta Energy.
Shaw’s views put him at odds with the emerging segment of biofuels that’s invested about $3 billion since 2008 in the United States developing processes that turn biomass into new types of fuel. Amyris Inc. and Gevo Inc. are among producers that have yet to make fuel on commercial scales and slid since their initial public offerings.
“Everybody but me is still in this nightmare,” Shaw, 50, said in an interview in San Francisco. “This model is broken.”
Codexis kicked off its biofuel program in 2006 with backing from Royal Dutch Shell, the first oil company to support the development of enzymes that break down organic material into sugars that are fermented into ethanol.
The company shuttered its biofuel research program with Shell in August and “refocused our business on the pharmaceuticals market,” according to Codexis’s April 2 annual report. “Cellulosic fuels and chemicals are not widely manufactured at commercial scale because their unit production economics have not yet been shown to be competitive with incumbent petroleum.”
Shell provided $375 million in backing over six years, said Shaw, who left the company in February 2012. Meaghan Barbin, a Codexis spokeswoman, didn’t reply to questions about its current biofuels efforts.
The collapse of U.S. gas prices to 1990s levels, owing to the shale-gas bonanza, is sucking investment away from traditional biotech companies and delivering it to startups focused on fossil-fuel feedstock, such as Calysta.
Siluria Technologies Inc. CEO Edward Dineen stepped down in January from the same post at biofuel company LS9 Inc. to commercialize a Massachusetts Institute of Technology process for converting methane into ethylene, the world’s most valuable chemical commodity with about $175 billion in annual sales. Ethylene can be used to make fuels, and Dineen plans to license Siluria’s catalytic technology to petrochemical companies.
“The world seems to be finding more and more gas, so I feel very comfortable with the feedstock story here,” said Dineen, who remains on LS9’s board.
While companies such as Poet and Abengoa have been producing standard corn ethanol for years, businesses seeking to develop the next generation of cellulosic biofuels from non-food crops have struggled to perfect their technology, because of a host of obstacles.
Shaw said he doubts these ventures will be viable, mainly because the biomass feedstock needed to run the plants isn’t as easy or cheap to produce as the companies promised. It takes about six metric tons of raw material to yield a ton of ethanol, a “huge” amount, he estimated.
Shaw’s efforts at Codexis helped put advanced biofuels on the map, and Codexis was the first company to convince public markets to support the idea of a biological process for making ethanol, gasoline and diesel from plants with its April 2010 IPO, said Ben Kallo, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. in San Francisco.
Shaw “introduced industrial biotech to public investors,” Kallo said. “He did kind of sell the vision.”
The vision has yet to become reality. Codexis shares closed at $2.24 Tuesday, down 83 percent from the IPO price. Gevo halted production in September at its flagship plant after production yields fell short of expectations. Amyris and Solazyme Inc. are getting most of their revenue from selling small volumes of high-margin chemicals.
Those markets aren’t as large as the “multi-billion” dollar fuel opportunities the companies emphasized in their IPO road shows, Shaw said. “You cannot convert biomass, or sugar, into large volume chemicals because you’ll never make money,” he said. “Specialist oils, yes, but that’s not what this was about.”
It’s too soon to write off the entire field, said Solazyme CEO Jonathan Wolfson. The South San Francisco, California-based company created algae that eats plant sugars and produces oils that are processed into fuel or chemicals.
“Advanced biofuels is in its infancy compared to wind and solar,” Wolfson said in an interview. “These kinds of things take time.”
While some of the early promises about the industry’s potential may have been overstated, Wolfson said, “I vehemently disagree with the observation that you can’t make money converting biomass or sugar into fuel at large volume.”
The Latest Bing News on:
- The reason why gas prices are so high was decades in the makingon June 27, 2022 at 8:00 am
As Biden seeks short-term solutions to ease the burden on American workers and families, he is trying to fix a problem that has been decades in the making. Quite simply, the count ...
- Oakland County feels the gas-price burnon June 27, 2022 at 7:21 am
As for the impact of a Michigan or federal gas holiday, De Haan said lower gas prices would lead to more driving at a time when gas supplies remain scarce. “That would exacerbate the balance between ...
- Did corporate greed fuel inflation? It’s not biggest culpriton June 27, 2022 at 6:36 am
Furious about surging prices at the gasoline station and the supermarket, many consumers feel they know just where to cast blame: On greedy companies that relentlessly jack up prices and pocket the ...
- Sen. Boscola proposes temporary halt in Pa. gas and diesel fuel taxes; ‘Give it back to the people’on June 27, 2022 at 5:52 am
Twin new proposals from state Sen. Lisa Boscola for temporary elimination of Pennsylvania’s ultra-high gasoline and diesel fuel taxes would let consumers keep about $460 million in their pockets over ...
- Arkansas gas, diesel fuel slightly down Mondayon June 27, 2022 at 5:49 am
Both gas and diesel fuel have slightly dropped in Arkansas as the new week begins. AAA latest numbers show that the average gas price in the Natural State is $4.44 per gallon, down one cent from ...
- Will Gas Prices Go Down in July?on June 27, 2022 at 5:30 am
If they all choose to suspend fuel taxes, that could result in immediate relief at the pump—as much as 50 cents per gallon." The President's Plan for a Gas Tax Holiday The president is calling for a ...
- Experts say gas tax holiday makes inflation worseon June 27, 2022 at 1:00 am
Iowa drivers would save more than 18 cents per gallon on gasoline if federal lawmakers paused the federal gas tax, and another 30 cents per gallon if the state did the same. But not all lawmakers ...
- Federal judge rejects gas station owners' fight against political stickers on pumpson June 24, 2022 at 1:43 pm
The group’s lawsuit said the sticker requirement mandated by the Illinois Legislature and Gov. J.B. Pritzker is forced political speech.
- Federal gas tax holiday aims to ease prices at the pump, but how much would drivers save?on June 23, 2022 at 10:10 am
A federal gas tax holiday might add up for certain drivers, but research shows a three-month tax suspension may not be enough time for significant impact.
- Why cutting the federal gas tax might not help drivers muchon June 23, 2022 at 7:16 am
Passing along all the savings to motorists, which economists say is unlikely, still wouldn't save them much money.
The Latest Google Headlines on:
The Latest Bing News on:
Converting methane into ethylene
- Is recycling a solution for climate change in SLO County? Yes and no, but here’s how to helpon June 26, 2022 at 4:00 am
Recycling sounds great, but when it comes to plastics, other steps are needed, The Tribune’s climate change expert writes.
- LG Chem look to hydrogen to clean up petrochemical productionon June 20, 2022 at 3:58 am
A South-Korean chemicals manufacturer has today (June 20) said it will establish a plant to produce 50,000 tonnes of hydrogen per year in Daesan, South Korea, to clean up petrochemical production. The ...
- Biogas and biomethane supply chains leak twice as much methane as first thoughton June 17, 2022 at 11:19 am
A new Imperial analysis has found that biogas and biomethane, while more climate friendly, leak more than twice as much methane as previously thought. Although biogas and biomethane remain climate ...
- Enterprise Moves Forward with $5 Billion ‘World-scale’ Petchem Projecton June 16, 2022 at 7:47 am
Enterprise Products Partners completed early steps toward a proposed $5 billion ethane project east of Houston described by analysts as a “world-scale petchem facility.” ...
- Photosynthesis-inspired process makes commodity chemicalson June 9, 2022 at 7:59 am
Northwestern University chemists have taken inspiration from plants to revolutionize the way an important industrial chemical is made. In a first for the field, the Northwestern team used light ...
- Is creating plastics from biomass really a ‘green’ idea?on June 1, 2022 at 5:00 pm
“The catalyst is necessary to power a carbon dioxide reduction reaction, converting CO 2 into other chemicals when it gets ... “It’s magic because it can make many different chemicals, like methane, ...
- Scientists Lay Out Plan to Use CO2 Emissions for Good – When We Can Capture Themon June 1, 2022 at 5:00 pm
While scientists develop ways to affordably capture CO2 waste and convert it into useful molecules for industry ... For energy storage demands, ethane, hydrogen and methane could be used in biofuels ...
- Crude oil-to-chemicals technology could be game changer for chemicals industryon May 25, 2022 at 5:00 pm
Siluria Technologies (San Francisco and Menlo Park, CA) and Saudi Aramco Technologies Co. (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia) announced this week that they would join forces to revolutionize the petrochemicals ...
- Scientists Say New Technique Could Turn Martian Air Into Rocket Fuelon September 24, 2021 at 10:16 am
Scientists say they've developed a trick that can turn Martian air into rocket fuel — and ... He argued that his carbon dioxide-to-methane conversion could even help serve as a sort of chemical ...
- Elon And Exxon Agree: Carbon Capture Is Set To Explode In 2021on February 8, 2021 at 2:16 pm
“Both NASA and SpaceX already have plans to produce methane using the CO2 ... main project was with Oxy for conversion of CO2 into carbon-negative bio-ethylene. Since then, we have now ...