Synthetic Biology and Next-Generation Biofuels
The world is changing. This phrase is typical of the oldest inhabitants of any human era and society, but it is no less true for that. Times are always changing, and we tend to notice when they change for the worse or something new threatens us. This is the case today, for, among all the threats of the imminent future, one is of much greater concern to those in power – “Energy”
Mastering energy is the real power that neither money nor tyranny alone can buy, for they need at least one source of energy to dispose of. The energy consumption of human populations has increased by 124% from 1973 to 2016, from 6101 to 13,699 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent). This, together with the fact that oil reserves are expected to be depleted in just 2 decades – and of course the price will become unaffordable for citizens and governments the less oil is left due to lower supply – puts us in one of the biggest predicaments that humanity will have to solve sooner rather than later.
While there is an apparent collective effort to change the energy model, known as the energy transition, to a more sustainable one, it does not appear that this is being done at a sufficiently rapid pace to avoid an energy collapse in the coming years. This warning does not come from now, but the thinkers of more than 100 years ago had already communicated it in articles, books, scientific or philosophical communications of all kinds, from many different fields. As is always the case with catastrophic events, they seem to be inevitable. Or could it be that this is not the case?
The Concept of Biofuel
Biofuel is a name for products similar to conventional fuel oil derived from the processing of biomass. It is in this processing – and also in the type of biomass – where specific mechanisms occur that end up generating the different versions of biofuel. Therefore, biofuel is a dynamic concept that encompasses many by-products of these reactions. There are first, second, third, and fourth-generation biofuels. Each generation renews some of the processes to increase the efficiency of the process, in terms of cost and/or energy. The most promising biofuels are based on the growth of single-celled photosynthetic organisms in bioreactors specially designed to grow this type of living biomass. As the problems of one generation of biofuels are solved, we progressively enter a new generation.
Biofuel as remedy
If it is not the solution, only time will tell. But as of today, experts around the world agree that it is the most effective and efficient renewable energy to date. Not only is it easily producible, but it is essentially equivalent to fossil fuel – so the market would not have to adapt too much – but without the most negative parts of it: its CO2 emissions are neutral and it releases much less of other toxics such as nitrous oxide. The most famous biofuels under development are bioethanol, biodiesel, biohydrogen, biomethanol, biobutanol, and biogas.
The performance of the latest generation of biofuels is outstanding, as are the costs of their production. However, it is still difficult to produce it on a large scale to meet the global energy needs mentioned at the beginning. And that study is from 2016, so it is perfectly plausible that the increase today is much more pronounced.
Soil used in new biofuel forms
To supply the amount of fuel for all the cars in the world would require an area of 384 Mha if the 200 billion gallons were produced from jatropha oil. If biofuel were to be produced from algae, assuming a low yield of 30% – some companies have already achieved 55% by selecting algae with a higher lipid ratio – at a biomass production of 1.5 kg/m3 per day, only 5.4 Mha would be required. This, to top it off, is a pessimistic estimate based on current technology. In a normal scenario, with the improved technology of the future, the results would be much better for the same amount of fuel oil produced.
Current State & Start-ups
In this field, there are thousands of biotech initiatives searching for the “perfect algae” or a new and even more productive form of biofuel. Enerkem is leading private investment and is well established in the area of biomass recycling. Synthetic genomics is developing transport fuels from modified algae. GreenFuel takes care of the logistical details of algae production, such as the designs of its bioreactors to capture more CO2.
While there are many ideas, from a biological point of view, a better understanding of living systems is lacking. It seems that most initiatives are losing sight of the fact that in their bioreactors there are microorganisms that can be easily manipulated with state-of-the-art technologies. Without counting genetic engineering, we are talking about solutions such as directed evolution; a perfect tool for this type of system in which the aim is to enhance a specific characteristic of a species or guild. In time, we will probably see a great proposal in this sense.