Issue: Jan 2010


CYANOBACTERIA: HIGH YIELD LOW COST BIO FUEL ADVANCES



by Bob Brooks

Just as it seemed Algae is on its way to leadership in the emerging market for transportation bio fuels, another microorganism has entered the picture with support from some of the World’s largest oil companies and many others.

Illustrating the importance of the development, Synthetic Geonomics, as part of ExxonMobil’s $600 million investment in bio fuel is reportedly developing cyanobacteria based fuel. Another energy giant, BP Oil Co is providing support for Arizona State University’s BioDesign Institute cyanobacteria development effort as part of BP’s $500 million bio fuel program.

The Arizona Science Foundation believes cyanobacterial based fuel made in the state could “provide a major source of carbon-neutral fuel for the U.S. as well as high quality employment and overall economic growth for Arizona. Demonstration pilot bioreactors with fluids exposed to the sun in transparent tubes are scheduled for start up in 2010. APS (Arizona Public Service) will supply waste CO2.

Last year, Joule Biotechnologies, Cambridge, MA, announced development of genetically modified cyanobacteria able to combine CO2 and sunlight directly into either ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels at very low cost. Cyanobacteria is identified in some references as a “weed found in algae”. Technically, it is “synechococcus elongatus”

It has been reported that researchers at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) have produced liquid bio fuels from genetically modified cyanobacteria via a simple process at very low cost and with little land area needed for production(reflecting yield 100X corn or soybean based bio fuels)

James C. Liao, UCLA chancellor’s professor of biomolecular engineering sees the prospect of connecting bio fuel operations directly to fossil fueled power plants as a source for CO2. This raises the question of whether fossil fuel powered electric utility plants will be required to sequester CO2 underground at high pressure and high cost before technology for productive use of unwanted CO2 becomes commercially available.

Liao’s process has initially produced butanol but can be modified to produce diesel fuel and the ingredients used in gasoline. Butanol has important advantages over ethanol due to higher energy content and can be shipped by pipeline. (Not possible with ethanol).

At this early stage of new technology disclosure it can be difficult to anticipate the impact on other technologies; however some aspects can be considered.

For one, while the cyanobacteria system is indicated to eliminate the need for harvesting and processing biomass in order to achieve alcohol and hydrocarbon like fuels, some
algae systems now being readied for commercial demonstration have similar advantages by continuously secreting near finished fuels but cost per gallon differences have yet to be defined. .

Another is the matter of genetic modification (GM) reportedly needed to make cyanobacteria perform as wanted. The permitting consequences of very large scale
production of GM cyanobacteria may be more a matter of time and complexity, however, and not comparable to open field or pond conditions.

To the degree that cyanobacteria based fuels have significant cost advantages, the plan to begin pilot bioreactor operation in 2010 may clarify this aspect.

In the overall picture, cyanobacteria bio fuel technology is in the hands of some of the World’s largest deep pocket energy companies faced with international crude petroleum supply and CO2 control concerns. For this reason the incentive to perfect cyanobacteria based fuel could hardly be greater.


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