Where Einstein Meets Edison

A Dream of Fuels Gold: From Gasoline to Grassoline

A Dream of Fuels Gold: From Gasoline to Grassoline

Jun 8, 2010

According to Schumpeter1, entrepreneurship employs the so-called “gale of creative destruction” to replace inferior innovations across markets and industries while simultaneously creating better new products, knowledge and businesses. In this way, entrepreneurs are largely responsible for the long-term economic growth of societies, providing the intellectual horsepower to conquer the problems facing humanity. One contemporary example in which entrepreneurs are making an impact is in energy sustainability. Many alternative energy technologies have been discussed and investigated. Here we review a Cell journal analysis report on one type of renewable energy that has been gaining recent attention, biofuels.

Trisha Gura wrote to Cell2 in her article “Driving Biofuels from Field to Fuel Tank” about “fuels gold”, novel biofuels derived from plants, dubbed “grassoline”, as the future substitute for gasoline. Gura asserts, “the success of any new biofuel technology will depend not only on its scientific fitness but also on its environmental, political, and social resilience”2.  Across the globe, government policies are formulated to support clean energy initiatives and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. For example, America strives to achieve the ultimate federal target of 30% reduction in gasoline consumption by 20303. Ethanol production is expected to double by 2015 in Brazil and to triple in the US, possibly reaching 136.8 billion liters per year by 2022, while reaching 15 billion liters per year by 2020 in the European Union4. At the same time, second-generation biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 86%, according to the Great Lakes Bio-energy Research Center, a DOE-funded research institute5. Even the oil industry is getting involved in biofuels. They are following Exxon Mobil’s example of a recent joint venture in algael biofuels (with Synthetic Genomics, Inc).

Overall biomass-to-biofuel technologies can be grouped into three basic platforms, depending on the intermediate materials generated: sugar, liquid, or gas. With sugar-intermediate technologies, plant biomass, called feedstock, is processed in a low-temperature reactor containing enzymes that break down plant cell walls and release sugars, which are converted into ethanol through fermentation. Liquid-intermediate technologies involve heating up a feedstock to high temperatures (~600°C) and using chemical catalysts to produce pyrolysis liquids or bio-oils, which can be refined directly into gasoline or diesel. Finally, gas-intermediate technologies rely on cooking biomass at extreme temperatures (700°C to 1000°C) to vaporize it and subsequently convert it to liquid fuel with chemical catalysts.

Each of these biofuels is of great technical merit and offers reduced environmental footprint and great social impact. However, methods for converting biomass into sugars and fuels are largely biological and sensitive to scale-up bioreactor conditions, particularly because of impurities that may poison the enzymes. Two other technologies that produce either pyrolysis liquids or syngas require very high temperatures for chemical reactions. These processes can generate unwanted byproducts and consume large quantities of heat, reducing the net quantity of energy harnessed. Moreover, most of these biofuel processes will require huge quantities of water for separation and purification into desirable products, adding to the strain on natural resources beyond the use of arable land.

The idea of bio-oil or bio-ethanol is nothing new. People have long been harvesting vegetable oils from oil palms, Elaeis guineensis. The brewing of beverages with microbes can be dated back many centuries.However, today’s research and development of biofuels is at a unique advantage when compared to other forms of renewable energy. Advancements in modern biology have created a wealth of information readily transferable to biofuel research. The body of available work has largely spawned from the boom of biomedical research, particularly in the areas of microbiology, cellular biology and genomics. Downstream bioreactor engineering technology, which constitutes the core technology of pharmaceutical protein production in mammalian cell culturing and beverage production in food science, is common in most biofuel production laboratories. The fundamental science of biofuels is making great progress, in part aided by the accelerated leap in talent, resources and institutional appetite for clean technology.

One successful example is the recent discovery of the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium carboxidivorans strain P7 by biologist Ralph Tanner at the University of Oklahoma. This bacterium was discovered to biologically perform syngas to fuel conversion. Tanner sold the rights to license the technology to Coskata Inc., based in Warrenville, Illinois, which is now developing and marketing this microbial syngas technology.

It is no surprise that Frost & Sullivan, in a worldwide market analysis of second-generation bio-feedstock6, comments that pre-treatment and gasification technologies are on the verge of making second-generation biofuels a commercial reality. The impact may not be significant in the short term unless unforeseen large-scale plants are developed at an affordable rate, but the implementation of biofuel will become more prominent beyond 2017. Second-generation biofuel will contribute not only to our energy security but will also provide a sustainable source of energy.

Overall, it will be a win-win situation for many players in the biofuel market. For example, breweries can benefit from the option to adapt their chemical processing units to embrace new biofuel production. Competition with other forms of alternative energy presents a healthy counter-check of the technical and social resilience of biofuels. Farmers will have greater diversification of their agricultural products, while creating new supply chains for their co-operatives. The emergence of this field will create an alliance of biologists, chemists and engineers to spearhead the technology development, with venture capitalists, industries and governments providing financial and political support. The wave of green energy may even spill over to other environmental preservation sectors, by displaying harmony between energy and the environment. Furthermore, biofuel spin-offs can be created from a long list of potential high value-added commodity chemicals that can be derived using the same metabolic pathways that produce biofuels.

Gura concluded that “we have reached a tipping point. If we are going to have sustainable transportation, biofuels almost certainly have to be a part of it.”For the entrepreneurially minded players in the bio-energy game, the dream of a grassoline ride may soon come true. For aspiring students, it mightoffer an encouraging study that demonstrates the transformative power of entrepreneurs.


  1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, 1942
  2. Driving Biofuels from Field to Fuel Tank, Cell 138, July 10,2009
  3. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/biofuels_initiative.html
  4. http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12450&page=49
  5. www.greatlakesbioenergy.org/wpcontent/uploards/2009/05/biofuelsmythvfact.pdf
  6. http://www.frost.com/prod/servlet/press-release.pag?docid=181830614