Friday, January 8, 2010

The Age of Microbiofuels

Even though we all have different backgrounds and not all of us have learned about it in school, we somehow know that soil is a strategic resource for our planet, and maybe the most important one for the humanity. Apart from the aquaculture (i.e lakes, seas and oceans), the soil is the only resource we could use to produce food. This is the reason why the soil preservation is a keystone in many developed nations' regulations.

Peak-Oil or Peak-Soil?

Living in the Post-Oil era, we all gradually become aware of the concepts of renewables, biofuels, green technologies and sustainability principles. But how green is the green actually? Take for example the biofuels - their emergence in the last decade provided a good example of how we could finally deal with oil and at the same time save the environment. But is this true? Well, partially.

At some point there was an insight that cultivating technical crops on arable land is giving us at least two major problems: a) biofuels are boosting the food prices, due to decreased production of food/feed crops, and b) the topsoil layer of the soil is being damaged, which take up to 600 years to regenerate. So, there was the problem we thought we solved, emerging again - we simply shifted from one natural resource demolition to another.

Is there an alternative solution?

Is there a way to create energy for keeping the civilization functional, while at the same way, we do not harm or exhaust the environment? The term biofuels evolved a lot for the last 20 years - there are several generation of biofuels currently known.

Biofuels produced from technical crops on arable land are the first generation biofuels. Their limitation, mainly in terms of food vs. oil competition, led to the development of second generation biofuels, derived from combustion of organic waste. While burning the waste already generated by us, is not the smartest thing to do, it is helping to reduce our environmental footprint. However, main limitation of second generation biofuels will be the lack of organic waste in the future.

Subsequently, third generation of biofuels was developed, based on microorganisms and specifically on microalgae. Third generation biofuels are biofuels based on microorganisms and microbiorefineries, producing different types of biofuels - biomass, biodiesel, bioethanol, with strongly increased yields in comparison with first generation of biofuels described above. Fourth generation biofuels are known to be also microorganism based, but in the sense of artificially created biorefineries. Currently fourth generation biofuels are in early research stage.

What are microbiofuels?

Along with this, Greon has introduced the term microbiofuels and suggested for its definition an extension of already well established and quite popular terms 3rd and 4th generation biofuels. The term unites the 3rd and 4th generations of biofuels, as they are both based on microorganisms (bacteria, cyanobacteria, microalgae, fungi, etc.)

  • Microbiofuels uses state of the art biotechnologies for biofuel production;
  • Microbiofuels technology implements high yield production methods based microbiorefineries, i.e. microorganisms placed in specific environment.
  • Microbiofuel technology could be used for recycling industrial waste, incl. gaseous waste as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, etc., and producing valuable biofuels by biotransformation.

Why based on germs?

In nature, when the scale decreases, the production yield increases dramatically. For example, one well developed tree is absorbing about 6 kg of CO2 per year, but for development of only one kg of dry microalgal biomass about 4.4 kg of CO2 is absorbed. A tree requires about thirty years to grow to achieve the rate of about 6 kg CO2 absorption, while microalgae in general has extremely fast growth. This is an example of how microscaled organisms could give enormous increase of yield in comparison to macroscaled ones, which leads us to the conclusion that the best biofuel yields will be recovered from the smallest known organisms, like cyanobacteria, microalgae, bacteria, fungi etc. Of course, our favorite species will be fed on industrial waste in the form of CO2, NOX, SOx, and will produce massive amounts of lipids. But is it possible?

The question "Is this possible?" is more or less inadequate, since these are species that survived millions of years on the surface of the earth, underground, underwater and in extreme environments. The adequate question is: How their biochemical processes could be developed in a way that will be economically sustainable on a large scale biotechnological production?

It is all about knowledge and its implementation

The technologies are rather simple. For example, one of the technologies for production of microbiofuels is based on photosynthesis - a process everyone has learned in primary school. The process is the base of life for most of the organisms on this planet.

Actually, as for every biochemical pathway, nothing is simple when precise control is attempted, and if control on production of high tech microbiofuel technological process is not implemented, the process cannot be taken to industrial scale . However control is possible, and in this case it is called metabolic engineering - when minor changes of the microorganism environment stop some metabolic processes and start others. For example, it is well known fact that limiting the nitrogen source for particular species of microalgae, will lead to increased production of lipids.

The technologies for producing microbiofuels are now emerging. It is estimated that industrial installations will be deployed somewhere in the period of 2015 - 2020. The main reason for this delay, and the biggest barrier to entry the microbiofuels market is the lack of interdisciplinary knowledge - biotechnological processing, metabolic engineering, production vessels design, etc.

Greon has profoundly analysed the current situation in emerging microbiofuels market. Based on this analysis, we could state that lack of knowledge is and will be the main reason why many companies will not enter the microbiofuels market niche, or will enter the niche and will not survive. The main problem connected with knowledge of bioprocesses and their control is not associated with the microorganisms as such. The problem is connected with the interdisciplinary status of the biotechnologies, the extreme environments that the microorganisms are grown in (for example smoke stack gases), and the economical viability of the system. Having in mind the perspectives in front of the microbiofuels niche, and the barriers to enter the market, we have developed the Greon Knowledgebase, which combines data, information and knowledge from different scientific domains, both theoretical and experimental. This solution will decrease the barrier to entry the microbiofuels market for small and starting up biotech companies as well as for the established corporations.

Should I be worried, when biotech is selling the oil?

The good news, when discussing microbiofuels, is that things are much simpler - these microorganisms were here, long before us, and had evolved some remarkable traits, which we could use. The hard task is to make available smart technologies economically sustainable, publicly accepted and environmentally friendly.