Moneyball, moneyfuels, moneymicrobes

September 2, 2013 |

moneyballWhat can biofuels developers learn from Michael Lewis’s best-seller, Moneyball, and its analysis of professional baseball?

Turns out, quite a lot, in the Department of Undervalued Microbes

Varying biofuels have varying challenges in reaching commercial scale — including market access, enzyme or catalyst costs, the financing of first-of-kind technologies, technology hurdles, extraction and separation — and so on.

But just about every biofuels technology shares the desperate search for SARA — that is, sustainable, affordable, reliable, aggregated feedstocks.

The situation of biofuels developers is not incomparable to the subject matter of “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, “about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. Its focus is the team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation.”

The Moneyball, moneyfuel problem

Like the Oakland A’s, biofuels technologies face one singular and monumentally challenging task: the revenue produced by selling fuels is lower than the revenue for competing uses for the same, scarce feedstocks. Whether it is soybean oils, corn sugars, cane sugars, or yellow grease — we have seen the pattern again and again: feedstock languishes at low price, biofuels and other new technologies emerge, feedstock price become unaffordable for fuels.

There are other challenges. Sustainability, reliability, aggregation. But affordability trumps them all. Any time feedstocks go north of $70 per ton for cellulosic material, $400 per ton for veggie oils, or $200 per ton for sugars, we hear about it.

Why doesn’t this affect fossil fuels quite as much? After all, they have competing uses, too — plastics, fertilizers, chemicals and so on. There are two reasons that fossil fuels escape the Moneyfuels situation.

One, the marginal production cost is low — somewhere south of $20 per barrel for proven reserves. It’s much easier to “turn on” fossil fuels supply to address rising demand. Two, oil distribution is so vast, it simply overwhelms the smaller markets for co-products like specialty chemicals.

Given the challenges, what can we learn from Moneyball and the Oakland A’s about feedstock development, to improve the availability and cost of biofuels at commercial scale?

Moneyball’s solution, in a nutshell

The principle that the A’s locked in on is identifying undervalued players — not the kind where you have a underperforming player who is acquired and then goes on to be an overachiever. Rather, the Oakland A’s looked for players that made contributions towards victories that were systematically overlooked.

Though Jamie Moyer never played for the A’s, he represented in some ways the ideal Moneyball player. A pitcher who was way past his physical prime, and had the slowest arm among all major league pitchers. Yet, he won more than 200 games after the age of 30, because he understood the importance of varying pitch speeds, and the importance of control, perhaps more than any other major leaguer. He kept getting people out by fooling them, rather than overpowering them. Deception was undervalued in the market, power was overvalued.

In the market for biofuels, old-line technologies that make sugars and oils are, at this time, overvalued for what the fuels market is going to easily bear — simply because there are so many uses for them. Land that produces corn, seed that produces corn — they are highly valued — often, too highly valued. For major leaguers with obvious tools, the market gets overbid — and the fans can get pretty unhappy when switches occur. Whether it is using corn for fuels instead of feed, or LeBron James moves to Miami instead of playing out his career in Cleveland.

Generally, the high cost of incumbents leads to the search for higher-yielding substitutes — on the theory that, if 2 tons per acre productivity doesn’t cut it in the market, maybe 10 tons per acre will. In the end, though, those feedstock prices generally rise, too. Just look at the challenges in Brazil, these days, in steering enough cane sugars into the fuels markets.

How can Moneyball help us to understand the solution?

Well, consider the case of little-understood, undervalued microbes — generally known as extremophiles (we also, here in Digestville, call them X Bugs).

They are the Jamie Moyers of the organic world. Large, food-producing plants and animals have been relatively overvalued over the years. Cows, pigs, goats, chickens, corn, wheat, and rice, for example.Their internal systems for translating natural inputs like CO2, water, plant matter and sunlight into food, feed, fats, carbs and fiber is unquestioned, and we have lavished enormous attention on them. In most cases, they could make a contribution towards fuels, too — there’s no technical barrier in using wheat to make a biofuel.

But, seen in Moneyfuels terms, they are overvalued players. Not valueless — in fact, highly valuable, just overpriced relative to other available athletes.

10 candidates for undervalued Moneymicrobes for Moneyfuels?

Let’s illustrate the principle with some real-world examples. These are not only microbes — which is to say, living systems — that are undervalued. There is something about what they do that remains steadfastly, near permanently undervalued. They are systematically overlooked, not simply accidentally overlooked.

In other words, no one is targeting these guys to make easy commodities like food via overfeeding them easy intermediates like feed. That — and the fact that they are really teency and hard to find, eeps them understudied, underloved, and undervalued.

1. Pyrococcus furiosus

Imagine a world where instead of creating CO2 as an emission from burning fuels, you could make fuels from the emissions, the CO2. And could do so in a way that bypasses the extraction of fermentable sugars — thereby getting around the energy-intensity of making sugars and then destroying them. And could do so in a way that bypasses the known limitations of photosynthesis — where no more than 5% of solar energy is captured in the form of biomass.

Broadly speaking, this is the goal of a series of teams researching electrofuels — under a series of ARPA-E grants dating back to 2010 and broadly expiring this year. One of those projects united teams from the University of Georgia and North Carolina State. The project for “Liquid Fuel from Heat-Loving Microorganisms,” won a $2.4 million ARPA-E grant in that 2010 round. In March, we profiled an item from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where a team from both universities led by X-Bug Czar Michael Adams revealed that they have engineered Pyrococcus furiosus to make 3-hydroxypropionic acid using hydrogen gas, and CO2.

2. Opisthocomus hoazin

It’s a leaf-eating Amazonian pheasant-like stinkbird, or hoatzin. A prehistoric relic, its unique fermentative organ harbors an impressive array of novel microbes, like that of cows and other ruminants. Instead of a rumen, stinkbirds possess a crop, an enlargement of the esophagus where the fermentation takes place—and the source of the stink. The characterization of its contents will likely lead to the identification of novel microbial enzymes that degrade plant cell walls.

3. Gribbles

There’s a special organism out there that has attracted understandable attention — because it has what we call a sterile gut. Now, every human baby is born with one — but we lose it in the first days of life as the bacteria move in. That’s the typical path for almost all organisms. But not the gribble. It’s a microscopic worm that causes wood rot, at sea, for piers, jetties and rowboats. A pest that knows how to munch fabulous amounts of wood as a food source, and down-convert them to the sugars used to power life. Sugars that can be fermented into alcohols, or hydrocarbon fuels suitable for internal combustion engines.

4. Ceriporiopsis subvermispora

DOE writes: “White rot fungi possess the unique ability to efficiently depolymerize lignin in order to gain access to cell wall carbohydrates for carbon and energy sources. Ceriporiopsis subvermispora rapidly depolymerizes lignin with relatively little cellulose degradation. P. chrysosporium and Pleurotus ostreatus have complex oxidative mechanisms involved in lignocellulose conversions.”

5. Desulfurococcus fermentans

According to the Joint Genome Institute, “Desulfurococcus fermentans, isolated from the Uzon Caldera on the Kamchatka Peninsula, is the only known archaeon that breaks down cellulose and, unlike most known microorganisms that carry out fermentation, it produces hydrogen (via proton reduction) while fermenting cellulose and starch without experiencing an inhibition of growth.”

6. Botryococcus braunii

According to the DOE, “Botryococcus braunii is a colony-forming green microalga, less than 10 micrometers in size, that synthesizes long-chain liquid hydrocarbon compounds and sequesters them in the extracellular matrix of the colony to afford buoyancy. A type of B. braunii produces a family of compounds termed botryococcenes, which hold promise as an alternative energy source. Botryococcenes have already been converted to fuel suitable for internal combustion engines.”

7. Caldicellulosiruptor bescii

This summer, a group of researchers led by the University of Georgia’s Mike Adams found a bacterium that can, without pretreatment, break down biomass, including lignin, and release sugars for biofuels and chemicals production. The group writes in Energy & Environmental Science, “the majority (85%) of insoluble switchgrass biomass that had not been previously chemically treated was degraded at 78 °C by the anaerobic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii. Remarkably, the glucose/xylose/lignin ratio and physical and spectroscopic properties of the remaining insoluble switchgrass were not significantly different than those of the untreated plant material. C. bescii is therefore able to solubilize lignin as well as the carbohydrates and, accordingly, lignin-derived aromatics were detected in the culture supernatants.”

8. Ralstonia eutropha

A combination of water, renewable electricity, CO2 and an engineered strain of a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha are the ingredients for diesel fuel, in a technology path being pursued by a team from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the University of California and Logos Technologies.
Highlighted in the in-house Berkeley Lab online publication this past week, the $3.4M electrofuels program reroutes metabolic pathways in the bacteria, bypassing photosynthesis, to create medium-chain methyl ketones, with cetane numbers similar to those of typical diesel fuel. The team is using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and the bacteria use energy from hydrogen to split carbon from CO2, and produce hydrocarbons that float to the waters surface.

9. Thielavia terrestris and Myceliophthora thermophila

A team of researchers from the DOE, Novozymes and Concordia University have been unlocking the genome of Thielavia terrestris and Myceliophthora thermophila, fungi that thrive in high-temperature environments above 45°C and whose enzymes remain active at temperatures ranging from 104°F to 160°F (40 °C to 75 °C),

10. Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum

A team out of Lee Lynd’s lab at Dartmouth has been at work on Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum, a thermophilic anaerobic bacterium that ferments xylan and biomass-derived sugars, to produce ethanol at high yield.

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