Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gangrene Sugar

This week I blog about gangrene sugar. In particular I will discuss two super virulent gangrenous companies. These companies are Solazyme and Amyris. John Doerr is on the board of Amyris located in Emeryville California. It is an off shoot of the work performed in the labs of Professor Jay Kiesling at the University of California in Bezerkley. Old John Doerr is the Kleiner Perkins chief who has both Al Gore and Colin Powell involved in his green-tech junk science companies such as the Bloom Box. John Doerr is one powerful dude, remember he was the host to the President a few months ago.

Young Professor Kiesling founded Amyris and then proceeded to give away on a royalty free basis his first invention for a wonder anti-malarial drug. Actually the free give away was not a free give away as the Gates Foundation gave Kiesling’s lab at Bezerkeley and his company Amyris millions of bucks to continue their research into genetically engineered yeasts and bacteria that yield unsaturated hydrocarbons ( isoprenoids) from table sugar via fermentation. Some of the unsaturated hydrocarbons that are yielded in Amyris processes are isoprene and farnesene. Isoprene can be used to produce thermoplastic elastomers or synthetic rubber. Farnesene can be used to produce intermediaries for cosmetics, or it can be incorporated into PET (the plastic in soda bottles) or it can react with hydrogen to form farnesane that is a synthetic diesel fuel.

This all sounds great and Amyris’ stock is trading with a market capitalization of over a billion dollars. It has a who’s who on its board including Art Levinson the one time CEO of Genentech. Art is perhaps the brightest biotech guy I have ever met. Let us go back to making farnesene out of sucrose. Sucrose is C12H22O11, and farnesene is C15H24. In fermenting the sucrose the oxygen in the sucrose is liberated as CO2, therefore approximately half of the carbon in the sugar winds up in the farnesene, while the rest of the carbon is in the CO2 that is yielded by the fermentation. The carbon content of sugar is approximately 42%, hence approximately 21% of the mass of the sugar becomes the mass of the carbon in the farnesene. The fraction of carbon in the farnesene is approximately 88%. By performing tedious math one can calculate that one pound of sugar will approximately yield 0.238 pounds of farnesene. The economic value of sucrose solution even in Brazil has to be worth 20 cents per pound of dissolved sugar. Therefore the cost of the sugar in farnesene production equates to 84 cents per pound of farnsene produced. Farnesene has to be reacted with hydrogen to convert it to farnesane that can be used as a diesel fuel substitute. This hydrogenation adds costs to the process and for argument sake let’s say the cost of raw materials to make farnesane is one dollar per pound. Add labor and other operating costs as well as capital recovery on the shiny stainless steel fermenters and other equipment and we are in the range of $1.50 to $2.00 per pound of farnesane they produce.
If farnesane has a similar specific gravity compared with diesel, we are now talking about a full cost of between $10 and $14 a gallon. Three years ago prior to Amyris’ IPO their CEO one Mr. John Melo promised the US government 200 million gallons of his diesel at a cost of $2 a gallon to be delivered in 2010. 2010 has come and gone, and they have not yielded much diesel. Diesel is selling for just less than $5 a gallon here in the Bay Area. To be a green machine, I will pay $10 a gallon to Amyris instead of paying $5 to BP for diesel. The extra $5 will remove 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Wow this is a tax of $500 per ton of CO2. Wait a moment Total the French Exxon is an investor in Amyris so why would I be dumb and pay more for Amyris’ diesel?

Solazyme is even more ridiculous claiming to make bunches of diesel directly from sugar in the dark using algae. They are located in South San Francisco and have attracted Ian Clark the present CEO of Genentech to their board. I wish that Ian and Art would have asked the green machine for advice in joining the boards of companies that are destined to fail in making real quantities of bio fuels. The two companies may make specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals with their bio fermenters as all that shiny stainless steel should be used for this purpose.

I apologize for the gross photo of a diabetic patient suffering with gangrene of the toes.


  1. Thanks for walking through how to get to the ultimate farnesAne cost ($1.50-2.00/lb ~ $3307-4409/ton), that was very interesting.

    I'm confused because for companies that seem to go out of their way to say they are "feedstock agnostic", they seem to ferment the same sugar (sucrose). My hunch is that it is just a cost thing (~$25-30/pound, $551-661/ton for a 96% sucrose commodity called the #11 contract on the NY Intl Exchange) and that this key input represents a lot of the production costs.

    Does anyone know of an economic argument for using "organic" sugar? In terms of "Energy Returned on Energy Invested", wouldn't it make sense to use this input rather than fossil fuel intensive production (e.g. fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, irrigation pumps, etc)?

    I fear that we will be the only species to go extinct because it didn't make economic sense to survive.