Home' Technology Review : January February 2008 Contents FEATURE STORY 49
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Cardayré. "Near the end of the highway, we add a detour, a pathway
we designed and stuck there, so the fatty acids have a better place
to go. We pull them o and chemically change them, using this new
synthetic pathway that takes them to products that we want."
Amyris, too, is taking the synthetic-biology approach, but
instead of tweaking fatty-acid metabolism, it is working on path-
ways that produce isoprenoids, a large class of natural compounds.
So far, however, both LS9 and Amyris are making their biofuels a
few liters at a time. And while the companies have ambitious sched-
ules for commercializing their technologies---both claim that their
processes will be ready by 2010---improving the yield and the speed
of their reactions remains a critical challenge. "It's where most of
the biological work is going on," says Renninger. "We still have a
little way to go, and that little way is very important."
If eventually commercialized, the hydrocarbon biofuels made
by LS9 and Amyris could overcome many of the economic dis-
advantages of ethanol. Unlike ethanol, hydrocarbons separate
from water during the production process, so no energy-intensive
distillation step is necessary. And hydrocarbon biofuels could be
shipped in existing petroleum pipelines. "It's all about cost," says
Robert Walsh, president of LS9. But a critical factor will be the
price of feedstock, he says. "We want dirt-cheap sugars."
Indeed, the synthetic-biology startups face the same prob-
lem that established ethanol producers do: corn is not an inex-
pensive source of biofuels. "The next generation [of feedstock]
will be cellulosic," says John Melo, CEO of Amyris. "But we are
not sure which cellulosic technology will emerge as the winner."
Whichever technology prevails, Melo says, Amyris expects to be
able to "bolt it" onto its fermentation process, giving the company
the advantages of both cheap cellulosic feedstocks and practical
For now, though, the lack of an alternative to corn is driving
Amyris right out of the country. The company, which plans to retro-
fit existing ethanol plants so that they can make hydrocarbons,
will initially work with Brazilian biofuel facilities that are using
sugarcane as a feedstock. Given the price of corn and the amount
of energy needed to produce it, Melo says, Brazilian cane o ers
the most "viable, sustainable" way to make biofuels today.
Even in a Silicon Valley culture that reveres successful venture capi-
talists, Vinod Khosla has a special place of honor. A cofounder of
Sun Microsystems in the early 1980s, Khosla later joined the venture
capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, where in the late
1990s and early 2000s he gained a reputation for ignoring the dot-
com excitement in favor of a series of esoteric startups in the far less
glamorous field of optical networking. When several of the startups
sold for billions of dollars to large companies gearing up their infra-
structure for the Internet boom, Khosla became, in the words of one
overheated headline of the time, "The No. 1 VC on the Planet."
These days Khosla, who is now among the world's richest
people (the Forbes 400 lists him at 317, with a net worth of $1.5
billion), is putting most of his investments in alternative energies.
He counts among his portfolio companies more than a dozen
biofuel startups---synthetic-biology companies LS9 and Amyris,
cellulosic companies like Mascoma, and corn ethanol companies
like Cilion, based in Goshen, CA. But to call Khosla simply an
investor in biofuels would greatly understate his involvement. In
the last several years, he has emerged as one of the world's lead-
ing advocates of the technology, promoting its virtues and freely
debating any detractors (see Q&A, March/April 2007).
Khosla seems exasperated by the biofuels naysayers. Climate
change, he says, is "by far the biggest issue" driving his interest in
biofuels. If we want to head o climate change and decrease con-
sumption of gasoline, "there are no alternatives" to using cellulosic
biofuels for transportation. "Biomass is the only feedstock in suf-
ficient quantities to cost-e ectively replace oil," he says. "Nothing
else exists." Hybrid and electric vehicles, he adds, are "just toys."
In particular, argues Khosla, any transportation technology
needs to compete in China and India, the fastest-growing automo-
tive markets in the world. "It's no big deal to sell a million plug-in
electrics in a place like California," he says. The di culty is sell-
ing a $20,000 hybrid vehicle in India. "No friggin' chance. And
any technology not adoptable by China and India is irrelevant
to climate change," he says. "Environmentalists don't focus on
scalability. If you can't scale it up, it is just a toy. Hence the need
for biofuels. Hence biofuels from biomass."
In a number of opinion papers posted on the website of Khosla
Ventures, a firm he started in 2004 that has invested heavily in
biofuels and other environmental technologies, Khosla envi-
sions biofuel production rapidly increasing over the next 20 years.
According to his numbers, production of corn ethanol will level
o at 15 billion gallons a year by 2014, but cellulosic ethanol will
increase steadily, reaching 140 billion gallons by 2030. At that point,
"Biomass is the only feed-
stock in su cient quantities
to cost-e ectively replace
oil," Vinod Khosla says.
"Nothing else exists." Hybrid
and electric vehicles, he
adds, are "just toys."
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