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Writing the biofuels story

Writing is a craft and an art. Fast Company’s website recently ran a story that demonstrates both, written by Daniel Grushkin on a company in the advanced biofuels sector – Amyris.
By Susanne Retka Schill | August 20, 2012

Writing is a craft and an art. Fast Company’s website recently ran a story that demonstrates both, written by Daniel Grushkin on a company in the advanced biofuels sector – Amyris.

First you have to get beyond the headline, which reads like an old fashioned yellow-journalism-attention-grabbing head: “The Rise And Fall Of The Company That Was Going To Have Us All Using Biofuels.” 

The story demonstrates the effectiveness of on-site reporting. It starts out with “The climb up the steel steps is dizzying – like ascending the tower of a European church, except the steps lead to a platform bolted to the side of a gleaming new chemical plant. Here in Brazil, under a brilliant blue sky, Eduardo Loosli, the plant manager, pauses to explain a vision of the future. "I used to manage a Molson Coors beer manufacturing plant, and it’s not all that different."

The story had me there. It goes on to talk about Amyris’ genetically modified yeast technology and the work being done to demonstrate that technology in Brazil, turning sugarcane into farnesene, a “seemingly perfect replacement for petroleum-based diesel.”

Besides being very descriptive of the people and places the reporter visited, the story takes a somewhat apocalyptic view of advanced biofuels development. “Amyris has become legendary--a stand-in for the sector’s breathtaking promise and now for its troubling descent.” And, later, when talking about the importance of having the first plant be successful: “And if not? Then Amyris will likely capsize and pull an entire sector--an entire vision of the future--down with it.”  Then, when introducing the section about his interview with one of the founders and CTO Neil Renninger, the author writes: “Circles of exhaustion rim his eyes. His company is ailing and he wears it on his face.”

In my journalistic training, writing like that was considered inserting your opinions into a piece. It makes for lively reading. If you agree with the writer’s bias, you’re cheering him on. If you disagree, it becomes grating.

The story is worth the read though, if nothing else for the writer’s exchange with Renninger where the reporter, essentially, tells Renninger he’s been fired. The story gives some insight on the inner workings of new biofuel technology developments. When I read his story, I know I need to read it with a healthy dose of skepticism -- he has freely inserted his opinions and conclusions, which I was taught not to do as a reporter. Yet, it is well-written and engaging, a good read.  

Most important to the industry I cover, the ethanol industry, are his conclusions accurate? Will the fall of Amyris (if it indeed falls) bring the entire industry down? I doubt it. There are a number of companies striving to make advanced biofuels a reality. They all, no doubt, could become the subject of a similar dramatic treatment of the struggles to take innovative R&D into successful commercialization. In the end, the ones that get the lucky breaks, that get it right, that succeed, will become the stories that are remembered.