Friday, March 11, 2011

Keystone Symposia on Biofuels

The second Keystone Symposia on Biofuels was held on March 1-6 in Singapore. The conference held in collaboration with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the primary funding agency for the city state of Singapore. The keynote address was delivered by Richard Somerville, who discussed the urgent need for action to avoid severe climate disruption.

The first full day centered on economics and sustainability of bioenergy whether from algae or lignocellulosic sources. The general consensus of the meeting was that current rates of energy consumption and increases in greenhouse gasses cannot remain on their current trajectories without significant impact to civilization as we know it today. The most interesting point made was that the ability of algae to significantly replace transportation fuel in the US was limited by a lack of carbon dioxide (CO2) of all things. There was no silver bullet and in order to truly effect changes several different means have to be employed.

The second day dealt with algae as a source for biofuel and unique chemicals. Several talks discussed the creation of specific molecular biological tool kits for algae. These tool kits would be used to “domesticate” algae in a matter of years, a task that required several thousand years for maize. These tool kits build on the knowledge base used in biomedical research using animal cells. The unicellular nature of algae and cyanobacteria in many respects is akin to yeast or tissue culture cells. It was noted that different strains had different strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly the tool kits required, while related were often different depending on the strain used.

The next day focused on lignocellulosics. Plant biomass is primarily cellulose, which when broken into its constituents (primarily glucose) can serve as important feedstock for the production of biodiesel, bioethanol and other chemicals. In addition a tour of Jurong Island and the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) research facility was provided. Jurong Island is a man-made island that houses pretty much all of Singapore’s petro-chemical industry including enough refining capacity to handle 2 million barrels of oil per day. ICES is the government sponsored research agency charged with assisting the chemical industry. The final day focused on local Singapore research as well as alternative strategies and feed stocks for biofuel production. Plants such as oil palm, Jatropha, and Pongamia can be used as sources of oil for biodiesel.

In summary the meeting demonstrated the need for multiple areas of research in regards to the replacement of transportation fossil fuel and reduction of green-house gasses with sustainable sources. There will not be a silver bullet with one specific technology providing all of the answers. There has been a lot of hype with unrealistic promises and expectations that need to be addressed with realistic estimates.


By, BioTek Instruments, Paul Held Ph.D., Senior Scientist

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