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Khosla Ventures-backed LS9, which is using a genetically modified version of e.coli bacteria to make diesel, announced Wednesday that it has made a “major breakthrough” in the production of biofuels and chemicals from cellulosic biomass. The company, working with researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, said it has developed a microbe that can produce advanced biofuels directly from cellulosic biomass, such as woodchips, in a “one-step” fermentation process that eliminates the need for additional chemicals and industrial processes.
LS9 aims to produce biofuels and renewable chemicals to replace conventional petroleum-based products, and the company said this breakthrough will enable it to do this at lower costs. Biofuels ultimately will need to compete against conventional fuels on the open market, and any technological advancement that lowers production costs should make LS9 more competitive.
The startup currently operates a 1,000-liter pilot plant in South San Francisco, Calif., that produces vehicle-ready diesel from so-called first generation feedstock like sugarcane. But the long-term goal of LS9 is to produce biofuels and chemicals using cellulosic feedstock (energy crops, plant waste, etc), which the company says would reduce the total, life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of its products.
Last year, CEO Bill Haywood said LS9 has been in the process of building a demonstration plant that it aims to complete this year. Spokesman Jon Ballesteros told us today that the company is on track to have the demo facility up and running in the “earlier part of this year.” Ballesteros wouldn’t say how large that facility would be, but Haywood previously told Earth2Tech that it would have an annual capacity of 2.5 million gallons.
Last September, LS9 raised $25 million in a third round of funding from oil giant Chevron’s venture capital arm and others, though the round was less than the $75 million-$100 million the company was asking for earlier in the year. But some critics have questioned the environmental benefits of biofuels that rely on any land-based plants, and recently venture capitalists have focused more on algae-based fuel startups such as Solazyme and Solix Biofuels.