Archive for the ‘Biotech’ category

First woman scientist from Spain in the National Academy of Sciences

May 12, 2007

salas_foto.jpgMargarita Salas is the first woman scientist from Spain to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She joins other 17 foreign scientists and 72 American new selected members of the Academy.

Members and foreign associates are elected annually in recognition of their distinguished achievements in original research; election is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a scientist or engineer. 

The Academy membership is composed of approximately 2,000 members and 350 foreign associates, of whom more than 200 have won Nobel Prizes.

Dr. Salas, a researcher for the Spanish Council of Scientific Research or CSIC, joins the three only Spaniards to have been selected to date, Mr. Antonio García Bellido, the paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga and the economist Andreu Mas-Colell.

She is currently working at the Severo Ochoa Center for Molecular Biology. Her main line of research is the study of the bacteriophage Phi29 virus. It’s a virus which infects the Bacillus subtilis, a non-pathogenic bacterium which is widely used in biotechnology.

Tiny Tech and Green Tech: Partners for the Future

April 27, 2007 is reporting an interesting article about the environmental benefits of nanotechnology.  In a recent report, researchers and environmentalists from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology listed the four possible ways in which nanotechnology can have a positive impact on the environment.  

“Green technology” is the name given to nanotechnology that is designed and conceptualized with “the environment on the mind” according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgoy.  The four ways in which nanotechnology can be a direct help to the environment, according to are the following: 

Creating new nanotechnology-enabled products and processes that are environmentally benign – or “clean and green”;

Managing nanomaterials and their production to minimize potential environmental, health, and safety risks; Using nanotechnology to clean up toxic waste site and other legacy pollution problems;

Substituting green nanotechnology products for existing products that are less environmentally friendly.

According to the report, the United States seems to be emerging as the number one country for nanotechnology research.  Combine this with the United States’ recent significant commitment to environmentally friendly energy policies and you have a formula for producing environmentally friendly nanotechnology, especially if that nanotechnology can somehow assists in producing green energy and ease dependence on foreign energy sources. 

For example, Nanotechnology may prove to be a method by which to reduce the amount of resources necessary in producing solar power panels.”>Overall, it seems that the report wants to emphasis that green nanotechnology is not a “niche” among scientists and environmental researchers, but rather a “commercially viable” option for businesses and governments.   

Finally, it is good to see that the report highlights the positive aspects of nanotechnology outside of medicine (e.g. nanotechnology being used to combat cancerous cells).  It seems that sometimes people are uneasy about nanotechnology because either they find the technology unfathomable or they feel threaten due to the size of nanodevices.  Yet, the report argues, rightly, that nanotechnology, like all technology, depending on who is behind the technology, can be a means to improving the lives of people.   

Of termites, algae and microbes

March 14, 2007

The search to derive alternatives to fossil fuels through algae and microbes gains momentum.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program, said a Brazilian newspaper last week that termites host microbes that can transform wood waste into sugar for ethanol production “in an effective and economic way.”

He was referring to studies underway and a lot of investment being spent on termites in the US and Researchers funded by Europeans that are studying tropical insects in laboratories in Kenya. The termite technology could surpass “in a few years” corn and sugar cane-based ethanol, used by the United States and Brazil respectively, Steiner said.

 The promise held by this line of investigation had been voiced many times before, for example, by Steve Chu – a Nobel laureate, no less (see “Termite guts…” a 2005 article at Science Daily).

 Originally uploaded by mini-d

Anyway, as if confirming Steiner´s  words, CNET reported yesterday how LS9, a high-tech fuel company that’s all about imitating nature, has received $5 million in funding. The company hopes to make what it calls “renewable petroleum,” a synthetic version of petroleum and other oil-based industrial products. It could provide more energy, per gallon, than ethanol and less carbon dioxide emissions than gas. 

Some start-ups, such as Solazyme and LiveFuels, have announced plans to produce synthetic petroleum from algae. Fields of algae will absorb carbon dioxide and other compounds and metabolize it into petroleum, the companies said.  Arizona Public Service Company (APS) and GreenFuel Technologies Corporation raise algae and use it to make biodiesel, feeding them carbon dioxide from a natural-gas-fired power plant, Red Hawk, west of

A Spanish start-up, Bio Fuel Systems (web in Spanish only) has also developed a method of breeding plankton and turning the marine plants into oil.  It was formed after three years of research by scientists and engineers connected with the University of Alicante.

LS9 will do something different from what all these companies are doing: it will brew petroleum through synthetic biology, laboratory and industrial processes that can perform the same function as algae or microbes. As a result, production doesn’t rely on live, single-celled creatures. Ideally, this will make the manufacturing process more amenable to performance enhancement or control.

 Algae Originally uploaded by Kimono.

Khosla Ventures is the principal investor in LS9. In a relatively short time, the Khosla firm has invested in a wide variety of companies that concentrate on harnessing the power of synthetic or real biology. But Vinod Khosla, its founder and considered the best venture capitalist in the world by both Forbes and Red ­Herring magazines is hedging his bets in different renewable energies. According to this interview at Technology Review, he thinks CSP (Concentrating Solar Power) makes a lot of sense.

And this brings us to the last trend to be spotted recently, the implication of venture capitalists and Internet barons in renewable energies , as the NY Times has noticed (see their “Business of Green”special and this article about the Silicon Valley RE investment frenzy)

More about cellulosic ethanol and Abengoa Bioenergy

March 7, 2007

As a matter of fact, Abengoa Bioenergy is at the forefront of developments in lignocellulosic ethanol, as it is currently building a 5 million liter per year plant in the Salamanca region of Las Vilas in Spain, which will be the world´s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

The company is taking a multi-pronged strategy to improve ethanol production researching different technologies.

One approach is the alliance mentioned in our previous post with Dyadic International. (see terms of the agreement at Energy – Seeking Alpha)  They have signed a three-year research and development (R&D) agreement and a stock purchase agreement. Under its terms, Abengoa Bioenergy will invest $10 million in Dyadic, for which it will receive 2,136,752 shares of Dyadic Common Stock.

Dyadic will use the proceeds from this private sale to fund R&D obligations called for in the agreement, whose objective is the development of a cost-effective enzyme production system for commercial application in Abengoa Bioenergy’s bioethanol (cellulosic ethanol) production process. The R&D agreement calls upon Dyadic to use its proprietary technologies to develop one or more enzyme mixture manufacturing systems customized to ABRD’s proprietary biomass substrates.

Dyadic International, Inc. is engaged in the development, manufacture and sale of biological products using a number of proprietary fungal strains to produce enzymes and other biomaterials, principally focused on a system for protein production based on the patented Chrysosporium lucknowense fungus, known as C1.

Dyadic is applying its technologies to produce enzymes for use in converting various agricultural products (e.g. corn) and waste products (e.g. switch grass, wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse, etc.) into fermentable sugars, which can then be used in the production of traditional and cellulosic ethanol as well as other products currently derived from petroleum. It has identified and tested highly effective enzyme mixtures for the efficient conversion of renewable cellulosic biomass to ethanol. The C1 genome has been sequenced, which will reduce the time required to bring a specific gene to market from years to months.

Besides this effort, Abengoa is already working with the U.S. Department of Energy in other complementary technologies. The D.O.E. and Abengoa Bioenergy R&D signed a 4-year, $35.5 million contract in 2003.

Under this contract Abengoa Bioenergy R&D, in collaboration with Novozymes North America, Inc., the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL], and Stake Technology, is developing novel biomass-derived process technology that utilizes advanced bio-refined Distiller’s Grain and Corn Stover blends to achieve significantly higher bioethanol yields while maintaining the protein feed value.

As for its expansion plans in the US, it is currently building  a 88 milion gallon per year corn ethanol manufacturing plant in Nebraska that is scheduled for completion in early 2007. The company has already invested a total of more than $400 million on ethanol in that state.

There are plans to build “copycats” in Kansas, Indiana and Illinois. That series of projects will begin in the second quarter of 2007 with a $175 million to $180 million Kansas plant.


Ethanol plant in York, Nebraska. Courtesy of Abengoa Bioenergy

Cellulosic ethanol and gasification

March 7, 2007

Last week, six companies were awarded by the DOE $385 million in grants aimed at jumpstarting ethanol production. Surprisingly, half of the projects chosen will use a gasification process first discovered almost a century ago.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section, congratulated the companies, saying: “The grants will help bring more ethanol motor fuel to the pump within the next few years, reducing both our reliance on imported oil and our emissions of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, these grants will bring thousands of new jobs to rural economies in Idaho, Iowa, and Kansas, where new biorefineries will be built. This is a win for consumers, a win for our rural economies, and a win for the environment.

The awards can match up to 40 percent of the companies’ funding with federal grants, allowing both construction of new biorefineries and expansion of existing ethanol refineries to include large-scale cellulosic processing units.

Erickson continued, “Federal government cost-sharing for the construction of these large-scale biorefineries to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other useful consumer products is a critical step toward bringing recent industrial biotech breakthroughs to the market”.

But the other winner here was gasification (see more here). Right now, it is a more expensive technology intensive process than current methods, but the DOE is apparently hoping that it might also provide a faster and more versatile way to produce ethanol or other from biomass.

A gasifier turns plant material into a synthesis gas consisting mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The “syngas” then could be turned into a variety of fuels including ethanol, hydrogen and environmentally friendly versions of diesel or gasoline.

So, the breakdown of the grants awarded goes like this:

Cellulosic ethanol:
– Iogen
– Broin (together with Dupont and Novozymes)
– Alico Inc.
– Range Fuels Inc.

Cellulosic ethanol and gasification: 
Abengoa Bioenergy, with its technology partner Dyadic International. It received a $76 million matching grant to construct a new facility producing 11.4 million gallons of ethanol from cellulose in Colwich, Kansas. It would use both biochemical and thermochemical processes to convert corn stalks, wheat straw and switchgrass.

By the way, when I mentioned yesterday some the “raw materials” that may be converted to ethanol, I was, apparently, forgetting quite a few. Some of the companies that won awards will also be using citrus peels, wood chips, yard waste and wood waste/timber scraps.  

I guess that with this I am risking being sent some other 2 thousand examples of products that might be converted to ethanol (we could turn it into a contest)