Chemurgy Is Back with a Vengeance

Biofuels & Climate Change

The Economist recently published two stories that succinctly make the case for continuing to reduce our reliance on oil. The more recent story outlines the use of industrial biotechnology for plastics, and another earlier story details research and development of biotech fuels that go beyond ethanol.

In “Better Living Through Chemurgy,” reporter Vijay Vaitheeswaran compares today’s industrial biotechnology companies with the chemurgy movement of Henry Ford, who sought to make cars and fuels from agricultural products, and George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of industrial uses — paints, dyes, glues — for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other crops that would diversify the cotton-dominated agricultural economy of the South. What’s new today, according to Vaitheeswaran, is

Advances in bioengineering, environmental worries, high oil prices and new ways to improve the performance of oil-based products using biotechnology have led to a revival of interest in using agricultural feedstocks to make plastics, paints, textile fibres and other industrial products that now come from oil.”

Why replace oil with agriculture?

The big advances in oil-based polymers happened decades ago, whereas the number of patents granted for industrial biotechnology now exceeds 20,000 per year. Such is the pace of innovation, says Tjerk de Ruiter, chief executive of Genencor, a industrial-biotech firm that is now a division of Denmark’s Danisco, that processes that once took five years now take just one. And Steen Riisgaard, the boss of Novozymes, insists that new technologies can indeed push old ones out of the way, provided they are clearly superior (and not just greener).

In an article just a week prior to Vaitheeswaran’s, reporter Geoff Carr surveyed the landscape of biotech fuels that are coming in the near future, in an article called, “Grow Your Own.” Carr calls an announcement by Amyris and Brazil’s Crystalsev to develop a new form of biotech diesel a parable about how “biotechnology may have cut its teeth on medicines, but the big bucks are likely to be in bulk chemicals. And few chemicals are bulkier than fuels.”

All parts of the chain of developing biofuels — feedstocks such as grasses, trees and algae, transformation of feedstock to sugar, and fermentation of the sugar into chemicals and fuels — are “the subjects of avid research and development,” according to Carr.

Carr concludes, “If America wants it, biofuel autarky looks more achievable than the oil-based sort.”

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