Shortlisted for the Global Energy Prize last year, Jay Keasling co-authored the second annual report “10 Breakthrough Ideas in Energy for the Next 10 Years,” which will be presented in June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Kisling’s chapter focuses on the latest innovations in biofuel production.
Sophia Morgan: Last year we already had an interview with you, when you were shortlisted for the Global Energy Prize and we talked again about biofuels. So, the topic has not lost its relevance since and, biofuels are still important solution to the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. But are biofuels really CO2 neutral?
Jay Keasling: Well, they can be CO2 neutral. It depends how you make them. If you use the right crops or the right starting materials, such as forest material or agricultural waste, and you process it properly. You can actually make a fuel that’s carbon neutral. In fact, some of these energy crops when they are planted in the ground actually sequester more carbon in the soil than what a traditional crop might sequester. We can get to carbon neutrality, maybe even carbon negativity with some of these biofuels.
Sophia Morgan: Here we will approach the second generation biofuels. So, more crops and farmlands are dedicated to feedstock for fuels rather than food or am I exaggerating? Do biofuels affect the production of food?
Jay Keasling: Actually, what we really want to do is produce biofuels using crops that are grown on marginal lands, may be on land that wouldn’t necessarily be used for production of food or make the fuel from the waste product from the food crop. For instance, when we grow corn or when we grow wheat we take the grain and make a food from that, but you could take the rest of the plant and make a biofuel from it. This is cellulosic biomass, but it’s a great source of energy for producing biofuels.
Sophia Morgan: But can it happen that growing crops for fuel create higher food prices?
Jay Keasling: There has been talk that this would be the case, but in fact it’s never been definitively shown that it would raise the food prices. And again, it’s a matter of choice. If we choose to produce the fuel from crops that aren’t grown on land where grows food, then there should be no tying to raising the price of food. In fact, if we use the part of a food plant that you don’t use for producing the food, for instance the stocks of the corn or stocks of the wheat, then in fact maybe it could reduce the price of food by making those food grains less expensive. Farmers would get more profit by collecting the biomass and turning it into fuels and turning the grains into food.
Sophia Morgan: You mentioned also in the chapter, that a good source for advanced fuels are fatty acids. But does this mean that animal fats are also suitable for creating biofuels?
Jay Keasling: Well, in fact it’s been shown over many years that you can take the grease that we fry foods in, in fact, and when we’re finished using it as a frying oil you can actually turn it into a biodiesel. So we can take many of these waste materials that we might otherwise just dispose of in a landfill and turn them into biofuels using this next-generation technologies.
Sophia Morgan: But can we mix them or we should only use only one of them like only fatty acids or only crops or we can mix them?
Jay Keasling: So the goal is to be able to mix them and use a variety of biomass whether it’s in fatty acids from fats or whether it’s in crops. If you think about fuels, fuels are not one molecule, they are mixture of molecules. They’ve been mixed together in a way to give the fuel the right properties for the engines we have. So one can imagine that similarly we can make biofuels from a variety of different sources.
Sophia Morgan: Which country on your opinion has the world’s first sustainable biofuels economy?
Jay Keasling: Well, certainly Brazil has probably done the most in terms of producing ethanol. Brazil turns out to have an excellent climate for producing sugar cane and that sugar cane can actually be produced in a pretty renewable way. They’ve probably gone the farthest in terms of the amount of energy or transportation fuels that are produced from biomass or the percentage that is. Now the US is, I think, still the largest producer of ethanol in the world and that’s used mainly as an oxygenate in petroleum-based gasoline.
Sophia Morgan: OK, we won’t show to our subscribers all he secrets of this chapter because it’s only a few weeks left to the presentation of the report that will be held on the St. Petersburg Economic Forum very soon. Thank you!