There is no shortage of creative startups aiming to find the next big petroleum replacement, but few have gained as much traction as LS9. The company just scooped up $30 million to turn genetically-modified e.coli bacteria into diesel fuel. That brings LS9's total investments to $75 million. Investors include heavy hitters like BlackRock, Khosla Ventures, and Flagship Ventures. What makes the company so special?
LS9 claims that it can produce biofuels directly from cellulosic biomass in a one-step fermentation process (e.coli ferments the biomass). The company explains:
LS9 UltraClean products are a family of fuels produced by LS9 DesignerMicrobes created through the power of synthetic biology. Starting from low-carbon, natural sources of sugar such as sugar cane and cellulosic biomass, these renewable fuels will fundamentally change the transportation fuels landscape and set the stage for petroleum displacement. LS9 UltraClean™ fuels have higher energetic content than ethanol or butanol and have fuel properties that are essentially indistinguishable from those of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.
The company is already operating a 1,000-liter pilot plant in South San Francisco that makes pump-ready diesel fuel from first-generation feedstocks (sugarcane). Eventually, though, LS9 hopes to scale up the production of diesel fuel from biomass (woodchips, plant waste, etc.), with the ultimate goal being a replacement for petroleum. If LS9 can do that, it could virtually eliminate our reliance on traditional petroleum.
That is, of course, a long way away. And LS9 isn't the only company using designer microbes to make sustainable products. A San Diego startup called Genomatica recently developed a process that turns sugar into commercial grade 1,4-butadeniol (BDO), an industrial plastic used to make fibers like Spandex.