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The Global Energy Prize annually honors outstanding achievements in energy research and technology from around the world that are helping address the world’s various and pressing energy challenges.

Anti-malarials from yeast, and fuels from sugar. Interview with Prof Jay Keasling

Morgan: Hello, everyone! This is the next in a raw chat with the nominees from the shortlist for the Global Energy Prize this year. And in touch with us Dr Jay Keasling. Hello, Sir.

Keasling: Hello.

Morgan:  With me vice president for development and research of the Global
Energy Association Pavel Korolev. Hello, Pavel.

Korolev: Hello, once again.

Morgan: Dr Keasling, may it be your first award in energy? After all when you are googled the first thing that is pops up is the information about your contributions to anti-malarial drug.

Keas: Yes, so my research is in the area of engineering microbes to produce chemicals and one of the first chemicals we went after is an anti-malarial drug called artemisinin. We engineered yeast to produce it, so that you don't have to extract it from the plant and it reduces the cost and makes it more widely available.  Artemisinin though is a hydrocarbon and it's not that different from diesel fuel and jet fuel, and, so, we thought: “Gosh, if we could engineer a microbe like yeast to produce an anti-malarial drug, maybe we could also engineer it to produce a jet fuel or a diesel fuel.” And that's what we've been doing.

Morgan: For those of is the our subscribers, who don’t know, Dr Keasling is the first, who developed a simple and less expensive synthetic of anti- malarial drug to be used in developing countries. Dr Keasling has already saved many lives. The technology, if I’m not mistaking, is used to produce biofules?

Keasling: That's right.  We can produce nearly anything that you might produce from petroleum using this technology, only we would produce it from sugars or other parts of plants.

Korolev: Dr Keasling, your research on the production of biofuels and chemicals will contribute to reduce impact on the environment and combat climate extension. Who would have thought that we would be helping these by bacteria?

Keasling: Yeah, the bacteria and the yeast, that we use for brewing beer and wine can be engineered and in fact they're a great platform for doing this kind of genetic engineering
and you can get them then to transform any kind of plant material into useful products.

Morgan: This sounds really like fantastic. But are there any real commercialised projects, working on this biofuel from sugar?

Keasling: Yes, in fact a company that I started, called “Amyris” has produced a great diesel fuel, that's been tested in cars and trucks, buses in Brazil, drove, I think, it's about 5 million miles on that diesel fuel. They've produced a jet fuel, that has been tested in many planes, that have crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific. So, we can definitely produce these fuels. We can also produce a lot of other chemicals that would be otherwise made from petroleum, just like when you produce fuels you can also produce things like plastics.

Korolev: Yes, and about this, once again, what could be more disparate than a cancer drug and fuel, but you're researching both.

Keasling: That's right. The technology can be used for a number of different possibilities.

Korolev: So, thank you.  And one more question from me. You're recombining peptides to produce chemicals that might otherwise be produced from petroleum, for example, hydrocarbon fuel.  Are these the same “dirty” hydrocarbon fuels or are they eco-friendly?

Keasling: Yeah, so they have the fuels, that are produced by these engineered microbes have many of the qualities of the fuels, that are produced from petroleum. They have high energy density, and they will allow a plane to fly the same distance, sometimes even more. The great thing about the genetic engineering, that we're doing, is that we can make these fuels. So, if we want to produce a very high energy density fuel, we can do that. But, on top of that because the fuels are made from plant material that plant material is made from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere these fuels are also carbon neutral. We have a great example in the laboratory, that we're working on right now, there's a fuel, that was used by Russian cosmonauts in rockets called “sintin” and it's a very highly energy dense fuel and we're trying to replicate that using biology in the laboratory. Now, they stopped making this fuel many years ago, because it was so dangerous to the environment, and to the workers to make this fuel. We'll be able to make it with biology and it'll be completely safe to make and there will be no exposure to workers, like there was in making sintin.

Korolev: Great. Thank you.

Morgan: Talking about Russians. These biologically produced fuels are excellent diesel replacements. However, fuels containing only long, linear, hydrocarbon chains will freeze under cold conditions. They are not suitable for countries like Russia.

Keasling: These fuels will work in any place that petroleum fuels will work, because we're making we're uh engineering the biology, we're engineering these to produce fuels that will work in cold, very cold temperatures, high in the altitude, they'll work anywhere, in any kind of aircraft, or any kind of automobile, or truck. And we can produce those fuels from any agricultural waste products, even from waste paper and we're hoping to work on a technology now to actually transform waste plastics and turn them into fuels as well. So, we believe that this technology will work anywhere on the planet.

Korolev: Thank you very much Dr Keasling! It was our pleasure and let me wish you good
luck in September.

Keasling:  Thank you very much. I'm looking forward to hearing the results!

Morgan: Thank you very much!

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