A group of international scientists headed by Australian Richard Jefferson is establishing the framework for a biofuels industry built on open source software and standards-based tools.

Jefferson is CEO of Cambia, a non-profit institute dedicated to creating new technologies to promote change and enable innovation and is the director of the new Initiative for Open Innovation (IOI, www.openinnovation.org)

Cambia has also helped establish Patent Lens, a free global, open-access, full-text patent informatics resource, which Jefferson says is essential to creating a new open source biofuels industry.

“You can’t just shoehorn open source licensing into biofuels,” Jefferson says. “We want the patent system to be navigable so you can map out the patent. With patents you have to disclose to the public how you invent something. The patent system has some horrible sides so we’re trying to render the patent system so we can mine it for inventions. That’s laying the ground work for green energy.”

And developing open source for green energy is empowered by the IOI.

“That can’t happen if IOI doesn’t happen first,” Jefferson says. “The IOI just had a global meeting. The Gates Foundation funding is for a global decision facility for patents and how they impact on innovation. It wants a cyber-based evidence discovery facility.”

The IOI started with a grant of $5 million ($4.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $500,000 from the Lemelson Foundation) with the intention to creating a global facility, hosted in Brisbane.

Energy goes open source

The new green energy initiative, dubbed “energy open source” (EOS) is starting now and seeks to first create a network of interested individuals.

“In a few months we are announcing a new licensing agreement. The GPL was brilliant for software and so was Creative Commons for content, but we will publish it under Concord.”

The second step is to map the patent landscape of biofuels “so we can break monopolies” and then the next stage is to choose algal strains that will be most productive in producing biofuel.

EOS will create lab techniques to “domesticate” the energy producing algae and Jefferson estimates the techniques will start appearing in the next 18 months.

“There must be a 1000 companies set up to produce algal fuels,” he says. “They all need the same technology, but none of them are sharing it. Those tools are competitive and no company has the ability to develop it.”

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to do things right in biofuels. If we have an open source initiative to create a platform for green energy development then companies can develop public or proprietary products.”

Jefferson, who is also a professor of science, technology and law at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), says what is being proposed is nothing less than a revolution in environmental development.

Since using algae involves photosynthesis and consumes carbon dioxide in the process of making combustible fuel, Jefferson believes the potential is “utterly phenomenal”, and the fuel development is “carbon neutral” without impacting food production.

Biofuels than can be produced with this method are biodiesel, methane and even hydrogen.

“In Australia, we don’t need to know the technology to make energy work for us,” Jefferson says. “We have sunlight, salt water and the space, so we already have the production environment. It’s to Australia’s advantage to develop a global open source movement for green energy.”

Jefferson cited Google as an example of a company that doesn’t make money selling software, but by using it.

“The fetish for ownership will kill us in biofuels. We need to make money on energy, not the production of energy.”

Five years ago Jefferson helped launch the BiOS initiative to “rip away” Monsanto’s monopoly on genetic plant engineering.

“BiOS is biological open source and has little to do with the rhetoric of freedom,” he says. “It’s about efficiency. Open source does the low-level software really well. Open source is an enormously powerful tool for driving efficiency. Cloud vendors make a lot of money without selling software, and biofuels can learn the same lessons.”

Jefferson says there is no one silver bullet for energy, but the toolkits for algal and plant manipulation are key.

“You can do it with land plants, but they have a role in the environment and they require fresh water. And this requires disruption of soils. If it is arable land it will disrupt the food production cycle. We already don’t have food production to keep up with population growth.”

Jefferson says ICT is now “built on open source” and companies can use their money on competitive advantage, not waste it on infrastructure software.

Regarding the role of the Gates Foundation, Jefferson it is passionate about health in Africa and so it wanted patent transparency for drug development which led to Patent Lens.

“They don’t mind that this impacts software development. We are leveraging funding in one area to enhance another.”

Domesticated Algae? Key to renewable energy

According to Jefferson, a ton of research has been done on molecular biofuels, but the right algae species for biofuels will need to be of a domestic variety.

“If you look at the most productive crop in the world it is maize. By domesticating a plant we produced a food,” he says. “People who are farming algae are farming a weed, an undomesticated plant. We need the right species, and it will be a domesticated species.”

“The stuff we get now is okay, but what we will get by improving algae will be a lot better.”

This will require genetic engineering to be done on the algae, but such techniques are also improving with developing technology to do precise changes to a genome.

“It’s like making precise changes to your code,” he says. “Right now GMO (genetically modified organism) of plants is just like adding code which becomes bloatware. We want structured homologous recombination, which we will be 100 per cent focused on. We will then provide this to the community under Concord as an open source licence.”

Jefferson says it will likely take five years to develop the EOS platform, but everything will be done transparently and with public and regulatory scrutiny.

“The first challenge is to develop technology to do this [and] we are not trying to produce software, but a ‘biomolecular toolkit’. You can’t introduce DNA into algae without this stuff. Right now it’s easy for people to do software engineering but we don’t have that ability in the biosciences so we need to democratize it.”

“Just as we learned in software that Microsoft was not enough — and Microsoft is now a better company with open source — and Monsanto is not enough in agriculture, we can’t afford to make the same mistake with biofuels.”

“We need an open source platform where we can get countless practitioners building from a toolkit that is transparent to the public.”

Jefferson says the key lesson leaned with software is that industries do not need a monopoly company and by sharing the tools “we can solve this problem now”.

“Historic agriculture showed how us how to do it right — farmers showed us how to do open source right and we screwed it up,” he says.

The challenge of sustainable energy development may be daunting, but Jefferson subscribes to the philosophy of “if you walk the right path, it may be easier than it seems”.

“The algae becomes a fuel manufacturing plant,” he says. What if the algae grew, then just bubbled away and consumed carbon dioxide and produced Hydrogen?”

“These should be scalable technologies that could be placed anywhere. Our intention is to make this a social enterprise. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to create a new fomenter that is patented. And then someone will invent another type.”

The concept of biominetics — where cyborgs act as organic photovoltaic systems — is one practical outcome of the technology.

“You can use enzymes to product hydrogen, so you can imaging a quasi-organic biomimetic hydrogen production system,” Jefferson says, adding not a lot of materials is required.

The aim is within five years algae demonstration plants will be prototyped, within 10 to 12 years they will be a reality, and by 20 years they will become commonplace.

“We are starting a social movement and none of it can work without the patent system,” Jefferson says. “Genetic technologies need to be a public movement. If they are owned by only corporations, we will never have that.”

“Open source isn’t about freedom without responsibility, it’s about responsibility that leads to freedom.”

On December 9 this year, Jefferson will be announcing at a biofuels conference his plans for developing a world-wide open source platform for biological energy production.