Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

Brewing Biofuels: Shell, Codexis Team Up to Drive Cellulosic Ethanol Research


MARCH 10, 2009, 12:30 PM ET

Royal Dutch Shell is placing its biofuel chips all over the table, from looking at ways to turn algae into biodiesel to squeezing gasoline out of plants.

But Shell’s latest deal with Codexis strikes at the heart of one of the biggest challenges standing in the way of biofuel’s coming of age: How to economically turn starches into sugars.


Deep-rooted traditions (AP)

Shell announced today a new agreement with Redwood City, Calif.-based Codexis to speed up development of super enzymes that can chew through starchy plants and break them down more quickly. Once cellulosic material like wheat stalks and corn stovers are broken down, they can be fermented just like corn and turned into ethanol. The problem so far has been finding a way to cheaply, quickly, and massively break down huge amounts of agricultural waste.

Codexis’ approach is to create better enzymesthan Mother Nature does, by fiddling with their DNA. These so-called biocatalysts accelerate the breakdown of plant matter into glucose, which is then dumped into vats for fermentation, pretty much like any home brewer does when making beer on the kitchen stove.

Actually, brewing better beer could help the Shell-Codexis linkup. Shell’s equity stake in Codexis, which shelved a planned public listing last year, will help pay for more researchers both in California and in Budapest, Hungary. Why Budapest? Because Hungarians know beer. Over the centuries, that brewing know-how has inundated academia, giving Codexis access to a rich cauldron of fermentation-savvy researchers.

Says Alan Shaw, Codexis’ president and chief executive, “This is identical to what goes on in the brewing industry. It’s just a different scale and parameters. But at the end of the day, the fermentation technology isn’t different,” he says.

Exxon’s Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson made a similar point, although with a different intent, back in 2007 when he told an audience of reporters at an industry conference: “I’m not an expert on biofuels, I don’t know much about farming. And I don’t have a lot of technology to add to moonshine.”

WSJ ARTICLE and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

0 Comments on “Brewing Biofuels: Shell, Codexis Team Up to Drive Cellulosic Ethanol Research”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: