Will Iogen Expand Biofuel Production in the Home of Volkswagen?

With Volkswagen throwing its clout into a strategic partnership with Shell and biotech start-up Iogen, a 300 million euro facility for producing fuel out of waste straw and stalks could land in Germany. After a search which included locations in Canada and the U.S. state of Idaho, a study will proceed to justify the investment planning for construction in Germany. Iogen achieved a marketing coup when the vehicles of the G8 reps were partly powered by Iogen’s straw-power. Is it time for this technology to become reality?
The Iogen process differs from the more common use of corn, other grains or sugar to produce ethanol (a process as old as beer) in that the yeast used by Iogen can consume the more complex cellulose carbohydrate. It is this unique property of Iogen’s yeast which make waste products such as straw or corn stalks a viable raw material for fuel production. But there is a catch: Iogen’s yeasts are genetically engineered. Will this yeast remain a submissive slave to the wants and needs of power-hungry humans? Or is the industrial-scale introduction of a new organism that can eat just about anything in the vegetative universe better left as the plot for a Sci-Fi thriller? The partners behind this project must be very confident that the risk-benefit equation balances to their advantage to propose the first full-scale manufacturing in the GMO-adverse climate of Europe.

The potential to manufacture ethanol from waste solves a lot of problems such as the competition between fuel and food, and the addition of pesticides and fertilizers to produce the ethanol which reduce the life-cycle benefits. Iogen claims that using their ethanol results in a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions relative to petroleum fuels, when the full emissions of producing the fuel as well as using it are counted. Against this clear benefit stands the as yet unanswered questions of genetic manipulation. In favor of this technology: unlike crops which grow widely outdoors, the yeasts for industrial processes are grown in industrial environments—in incubating tanks. Since the history of mankind suggests there is no turning away from technological advances, let us at least learn from the history of chemical technology: out of sight does not mean out of mind.

:: Iogen press release