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Blake Simmons On Creating Fuel From Plants

In this extended version of the talk from our new issue, we speak with Blake Simmons, the VP for deconstruction at the Department of Energy's Joint Bioenergy Institute about competing with the fossil fuel industries, balancing needs for food and fuel, and becoming the Radio Shack of bioenergy.

Blake Simmons | Photo by Toby BurdittPhoto by Toby Burditt

"We're developing biochemical technologies to convert nonfood biomass into drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. We're not looking for a silver bullet—we're looking for a silver shotgun. We're competing with the oil and gas folks, who have had 155 years to perfect their business models and technologies. To succeed, we have to create plants designed for conversion into energy, convert those plants into fermentable and cheap sugars, and convert those sugars into high yields of fuels. We have to process sugar polymers, which are what you target for fermentable sugars, and also lignin, which is the antibiofuel. First we pretreat the biomass to loosen everything up and de-lignify it. Then we add enzymes to the sugar polymers to liberate the fermentable sugars. Those get fed to organisms that have been engineered to produce advanced fuels. Using synthetic biology, we can engineer these organisms to generate fuels you can take straight out of the fermenter and put into your tank."

Fast Company: How did JBEI begin?

Blake Simmons: It's is one of three DOE bio-research centers funded back in 2007. The research here is focused on developing technologies and new pathways to convert non-food biomass into these advanced fuels that are drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel.

What would you say your overall goal is?

You know Radio Shack, right? We're trying to create Bio Shack. So you can go into this virtual store and order these parts you want to assemble within the organism. We benchmark our performance relative to what the industry does today. What we're really trying to do is create a focused, integrated research program that really identifies the critical bottlenecks in converting plants to fuels.

What makes your technology advantageous compared to others out there?

The great thing about our platforms is they will be able to be integrated into existing biorefinery strategies. Running a fermenter that produces an advanced biofuel doesn't require a whole new infrastructure or engineering mindset.

What's up next for JBEI?

Some of the most exciting stuff is these drop-in replacements for diesel and aviation fuels. We're trying to develop technologies that enable food and fuel. If we can get the same fuel output target without competing for land where food is grown, that would be very significant.

And what's up next for the entire biofuels industry?

There are a lot of different biofuels out there that can dig holes in the marketplace. We're not looking for a silver bullet; we're looking for a silver shotgun. We basically need all hands on deck to answer this challenge. I think you'll find solutions that come from the JBEI technology platform—the biochemical conversation of biomass. You'll also have a thermochemical component. And you'll see algae in one form or another.

Is there anything holding those things back?

Though our technology doesn't require a whole new infrastructure, there are still challenges to getting people to switch to biofuels. First, we have to get out of the economic downtown. It's going to take a very intense engagement with venture capital to do the first demonstration projects when you first leave the lab. Then it's going to take capital expense to get these refineries up to the 100 million to 250 million gallons per year level that will actually make a dent. Or you could get a company like Chevron or ExxonMobil to say, Hey, we're bringing this plan online, and we're going to produce these fuels.

Technology aside, what makes JBEI a unique group of researchers?

One of the more intriguing things about JEBI is we have scientists from six different institutions located under one roof. So all these groups work together. For instance, the feedstocks team is trying to create plants with lower lignin content, or liginin that is reduced in terms of its recalcitrance. They then hand those plants off to the deconstruction team, and the deconstruction team evaluates the effects of those engineered plants. Then we deliver the sugars we produce to the fuel synthesis team. You can see how project integration is enabled at every step. When the group of us first got together and starting working on the JBEI proposal, we were in, basically, a smoke-filled backroom writing a 300-page proposal, and now, to be part of that process all the way through has been a really remarkable professional and scientific achievement.

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  • Scary

    if you bothered to read this article you might have noticed that JBEI has only been around since 2007. I don't know- as it seems to me that this department isn't wasting time or taxpayers' money. What is clear is that Mr Simmons is discussing how to create an efficient means of energy while not taxing on what resources we have left on our tiny little earth, and now- not in 50 years time.
    Why is it that the most straightforward of things are often accused of as being crooked?? >>Most of the time, crooks are the accusers. SHUT UP AND LEARN SOMETHING!!!

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    It would be nice if fuel could be grown and refined domestically instead of sending dollars abroad, often to governments who are less than enthusiastic in their commitment to democracy.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach & CEO

  • fatalgae

     DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM AND ALGAE RESEARCHERS NEED TO BE INVESTIGATED! Solydra story is opening a huge can of worms at the DOE LOAN GURANTEE LOAN PROGRAM. Its not just about the Solar loan guarantee program. Look at all the millions in fees collected by the DOE LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM with projects 20% completed. Also, an audit needs to be done on DOE GRANTS to individuals from the DOE that are now working in private industry. Very incestuous! There needs to be an audit on each individual loan program for amount funded and results! The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at universities for another 50 years?
    In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, research has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!