Pamela Contag on Biofuel Myths & Realities

Pamela Contag is a microbiologist who’s as comfortable in the lab as she is in the boardroom, dealing with the business of running a company. She has plenty of experience there, having helped found two startups: Cobalt Technologies and Xenogen. She also sits on the Department of Energy’s Biomass Advisory Board.

The biofuels life cycle – can biofuels eventually
compete with petrochemicals, and if so, when?
(Photo: U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Contag is an astute observer of the biofuels industry. With much of the discussion today focused on second-generation biofuels, she points out that it’s still critical for people not to mix up biofuel feedstocks with human foodstocks. That sure spelled a lot of trouble during the first-generation corn-ethanol buildout, which alarmed the public and still dampens enthusiasm for the biofuels market.

Contag says there’s a list of myths that need to be addressed in order to keep biofuels on track.

“I think the three biggest myths are, one, technology or feedstock will solve our problem. The second is that climate change, energy security and water security are not somehow related. And the third myth is that solar energy to electricity is going to solve all of our problems.”

As for feedstocks, she says,

“I don’t think we have the answer now. But I think we’ll have it in the next five years. What’s needed is for entrepreneurs and investors to look at smaller crops with a unified theme of being able to keep a lot of different seed crops. Think of crops as being renewable but also sustainable in terms of agricultural practices.”

Contag is putting her views to work in her latest startup, Cygnet Biofuels.

The company is approaching biofuels with three core fundamentals:

  1. Low Energy
  2. Low Water
  3. Local Biomass

It wants to harvest local feedstocks and create fuels like biodiesel for communities, mirroring the early days of electrical utilities in the U.S. “Cygnet believes this isn’t an engineering project but an ecosystem project,” Contag says.

Part of Cygnet’s plan is to integrate a wide-variety of technologies into its power-generation plants, including solar, biodiesel, biobutanol, co-generation and digesters. In the company’s first phase, it plans to produce biodiesel with a business model that calls for extensive partnering to sell the company’s capabilities.

No doubt it will take several years to build out on a local biofuels model. But it sounds like an important step forward.

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