Electric Cars Won’t Take Over, Biofuels 3.0 Must Fix the Bugs, & Microorganisms as Problem-Solvers: Big Ideas from Cleantech Leaders

We had a great time at our latest Xconomy Seattle event, “Separating Hype from Reality in Alternative Fuels,” held last night at the new Institute for Systems Biology headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

The presenters sketched some meaty ideas about the drive to develop oil alternatives, challenged a bit of conventional thinking, and got the audience to dive in with great follow-up questions. Here are a few of the big themes that emerged as Luke moderated the main discussion with Ned David and Kristina Burow of Arch Venture Partners—two of the co-founders of San Diego-based Sapphire Energy—and Margaret McCormick, the co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Matrix Genetics. If you want to see some images from the event, check out this Flickr gallery from Vinh Chung of Total Effects Video.

Biofuels 3.0: David pointed to the U.S.’s last two attempts to develop biofuels—after the 1970s energy crunch and in the mid-2000s, when national policy ramped up the production of ethanol. Neither of those eras, of course, have delivered much in the way of energy independence.

David said the 1970s saw the first big effort to cultivate algae as an alternative fuel source, but that fell short because the technology wasn’t advanced enough to get results. That wrongly led many to believe that algae wouldn’t work, he said.

The ethanol boomlet of the past decade was the 2.0 wave of biofuels for this country, but that hasn’t produced anything like what all those optimistic politicians pledged at the outset. “Forty percent of the U.S. corn crop goes to replacing 8 percent of our transportation fuel,” Burow said. “That is not sustainable.”

At present, David said, we’re in the 3.0 phase of U.S. biofuels. Algae was a big focus of this particular discussion, since all three of our panelists have direct experience with that field. With projects like Sapphire Energy’s drive to put a huge algae-fuel production facility in the Mexican desert, you’re seeing “the first building blocks of world-scale capability” for these fuels.

“I think that microorganisms can solve most of the problems of the world. If you go back, it was alcohol or it was cheese,” McCormick said. “There’s so much potential that can be harnessed out of these microorganisms and the DNA that’s in them, and we can look at them to solve all kinds of problems.”

High stakes, but no quick fixes: McCormick said the latest phase of alternative fuels work is not purely driven by an economic need to reduce spending on oil, but is also by the need to address climate change and national security issues.

Burow added a fourth factor: “This has got to work. By 2020, we’ll have increased our need for energy by 40 percent as a world. And there’s simply no way to meet that increase without these types of alternative fuels.”

At the same time, Burow said, the cycle for developing such culture-shifting technologies is still much slower than we expect from other areas of innovation. “This isn’t Twitter. This isn’t … Next Page »

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5 responses to “Electric Cars Won’t Take Over, Biofuels 3.0 Must Fix the Bugs, & Microorganisms as Problem-Solvers: Big Ideas from Cleantech Leaders”

  1. Even microbes have to have something to make cells out of. At the scale needed for alternative energy – algae requires peak fertilizers of petroleum and phosphate – just like our food crops. Genetic engineering isn’t going to change the non-sustainable nature of or the mass balance negativity of biofuels – especially algae. However, if we fail to ignore this biofuel flaw we can shrink the window of opportunity we have to develop alternative energy by decreasing the amount of food production potential.

  2. Chris Noble says:

    Ned David has it exactly backwards… it is the knowledgeable greentech investors who know about the wide range of renewable energy sources and storage technologies that will eventually contribute to the electrification of the transportation grid, and it is those who can’t see beyond fossil fuels who are waiting for a single “magic bullet” before they change their minds. Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized at every stage: exploration, production, distribution, consumption and passing environmental costs on to the taxpayer and future generations. When will we be willing to abandon these fossil fuel subsidies?