March 20, 2006


Gene scientist's new venture: Create life, use it to make fuel (Michael S. Rosenwald, 3/20/06, The Washington Post)

Maverick biologist J. Craig Venter wants to cure our addiction to oil. To do so, he proposes creating a designer microbe — the heart of a biological engine — from scratch, then adding genes culled from the sea to turn crops such as switch grass and cornstalks into ethanol.

While he's at it, he'd like to modify or devise microorganisms to produce a steady stream of hydrogen. [...]

Current production methods of ethanol rely on using corn kernels, which are converted into sugar, fermented to produce alcohol and then distilled into ethanol. Meeting the country's energy needs using that method could eventually strain the food supply, particularly for animals that feed off corn.

Ethanol can be produced other ways, though it is more difficult. One way is to use plant matter such as switch grass, cornstalks or corn husks and break it down into cellulose using a combination of enzymes.

Until energy prices skyrocketed, that option was far more expensive than using oil, and the cost of building a plant was prohibitive. Technology is bringing the cost down, and biotech companies are lining up to advance the technology further.

Patrinos thinks Synthetic Genomics can reduce costs even further by using either a soup of microbes or genetically designed ones to perform, in essentially one place, all the biological functions needed to break down the plant material and turn it into ethanol.

Sun shines on solar IPOs: Markets have turned on to its potential; but vast capital is still needed to flip the switch (TYLER HAMILTON, Mar. 20, 2006, Toronto Sun)

By all accounts, the solar market is busting at the seams. Unprecedented global demand for solar photovoltaic technology has led to a shortage in polysilicon, a key ingredient for making conventional solar PV cells. Lack of silicon has meant lack of solar modules, creating frustration for suppliers trying to get their hands on inventory.

"Module makers can't keep up with demand," says MacLellan. "These guys are sold out."

Solarbuzz LLC, a San Francisco-based research firm focused on the solar industry, reported last week that the generating capacity of solar PV installations around the world grew by a stunning 39 per cent in 2005, with more than $1 billion (U.S.) invested in new plants to manufacture solar cells. The industry also raised nearly $2 billion on the capital markets last year, and was one of the hottest areas of venture capital investment.

Investors, perhaps blinded by the sun, can't seem to get enough. Initial public offerings of solar technology companies in Europe, China and the United States have a stunning track record. China's Suntech Power Holdings went public in December and has seen its market value nearly double to $1 billion (U.S.). SunPower Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., went public at $18 a share (U.S.) in November and is now trading at about $41 with a market value of $364 million.

Jumping on the bandwagon of solar IPOs is Cambridge, Ont.-based ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc., which announced last week that it will publicly spin off its solar group, comprised of its France-based Photowatt subsidiary and its Spheral Solar Power division in Cambridge. Analysts believe the new spin-off could attract $1 billion (Canadian), maybe more, given the success of SunPower and Suntech.

What's feeding this frenzy? An alignment of many stars. Advancement in solar technologies is helping to dramatically reduce the cost of solar PV systems, which only the rich, principled or government-subsidized have been willing to purchase in the past.

At the same time, heightened concern over global warming and pollution caused by fossil-fuel power plants has drawn attention to renewable alternatives, and supportive government programs out of Europe, Japan and the United States — including an ambitious subsidy program recently announced in California — has accelerated solar adoption.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 20, 2006 7:04 AM

American engenuity will solve the energy problem. Who will solve the problem of what to do with all that oil nobody wants?

Posted by: erp at March 20, 2006 11:13 AM

I used to live in New Orleans and to me, the street cars seemed to be an efficient and inexpensive means of transportation. Why can't we have street cars? I'm not talking about the multi-billion dollars light rail systems, I'm talking street cars.

Posted by: pchuck at March 20, 2006 12:07 PM

pchuck. Street cars?

Posted by: erp at March 20, 2006 12:27 PM

San Francisco's MUNI runs the cable cars, street cars (including some cool historic ones from all over), light rail cars and buses. The main problem is that it all seems to be run for the benefit of the union workers and not the riders.

Posted by: PapayaSF at March 20, 2006 4:41 PM

My question was what is meant by street cars? SF has a lot of different kinds, but it seems that buses do most of the people moving away from the tourist areas. As for union operations being run for the benefit of the unions, isn't that why they exist?

Posted by: erp at March 20, 2006 7:45 PM

If there's just one car on the tracks, it's a street car. If there are two or three hooked together like a train, it's light rail.

Posted by: PapayaSF at March 21, 2006 2:44 AM