Second generation biofuels – still five years away?

Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy, is a fan of second generation biofuels. But he doesn’t call them that.

In his interview with the FT, he says: “I like to talk about 4th generation biofuels.”

First generation is burning wood. He didn’t make it quite clear what the second and third generation are, but broadly in between comes ethanol and then a new generation of biofuels scientists are currently working on, to make liquid fuels from waste.

He says that the “technologies and the science we’re doing today is quite different. There are synthetic biology tools that simply weren’t available to us five years ago.”

The dept of energy is funding three bio energy institutes, he adds. One of them is led by Berkeley Labs. “In the first six months,” he reports, “the scientists have reprogrammed yeast and bacteria, introduced entire metabolic pathways so that the yeast and bacteria, when fed simple sugars, would convert those sugars not into ethanol but into diesel-like, gasoline, jet-plane-like fuel.”

Now comes the rub.

“The yield is low,” he says, “so it’s not ready for commercialisation, but there’s a reasonable chance that in five or so years one can up the yield.”

Did you get that? Yes, it’s still going to be another five years at least before we can get close to this new generation of biofuels.

Hang on a minute, you say. Isn’t that exactly what we were being told five years ago?

Yes, indeed it is.

Prof Chu is still hopeful: “[The yield] has got to be increased by more than a million fold, 10m fold, but those same scientists have done that for other applications, for anti-malaria drugs. So it’s… a possibility, and with the quality of scientists, I hope it would be a likelihood. If we do things like that, it’s a game-changer.”

And indeed it will be, if that becomes possible in five years.

But the endlessly receding five year horizon is a little reminiscent of the way people talk about nuclear fusion as a power source. It is always 50 years away, and has been for oh, well maybe not quite 50 years but a long, long time.

We can be more optimistic about biofuels, but still it’s an interesting bet.

Watch the whole video, which also includes more on petrol prices, below:

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