Skip to comments.Bugs Could Be Key to Kicking Oil Addiction
Posted on 02/12/2006 12:00:24 PM PST by BenLurkin
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The key to kicking what President Bush calls the nation's oil addiction could very well lie in termite guts, canvas-eating jungle bugs and other microbes genetically engineered to spew enzymes that turn waste into fuel.
It may seem hard to believe that microscopic bugs usually viewed as destructive pests can be so productive. But scientists and several companies are working with the creatures to convert wood, corn stalks and other plant waste into sugars that are easily brewed into ethanol -- essentially 199-proof moonshine that can be used to power automobiles.
Thanks to biotechnology breakthroughs, supporters of alternative energy sources say that after decades of unfulfilled promise and billions in government corn subsidies, energy companies may be able to produce ethanol easily and inexpensively.
"The process is like making grain alcohol, or brewing beer, but on a much bigger scale," said Nathanael Greene, an analyst with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "The technologies are out there to do this, but we need to convince the public this is real and not just a science project."
Using microbes may even solve a growing dilemma over the current ethanol manufacturing process, which relies almost exclusively on corn kernels and yielded only 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year (compared to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline used in the U.S.). There's growing concern throughout the Midwestern corn belt that the 95 U.S. ethanol plants are increasingly poaching corn meant for the dinner table or livestock feed.
The idea mentioned by Bush during his State of the Union speech -- called "cellulosic ethanol" -- skirts that problem because it makes fuel from farm waste such as straw, corn stalks and other inedible agricultural leftovers. Cellulose is the woody stuff found in branches and stems that makes plants hard.
Breaking cellulose into sugar to spin straw into ethanol has been studied for at least 50 years. But the technological hurdles and costs have been so daunting that most ethanol producers have relied on heavy government subsidies to squeeze fuel from corn.
Researchers are now exploring various ways to exploit microbes, the one-cell creatures that serve as the first link of life's food chain. One company uses the microbe itself to make ethanol. Others are taking the genes that make the waste-to-fuel enzymes and splicing them into common bacteria. What's more, a new breed of "synthetic biologists" are trying to produce the necessary enzymes by creating entirely new life forms through DNA.
Bush's endorsement of the waste-to-energy technology has renewed interest in actually supplanting fossil fuels as a dominant energy source -- a goal long dismissed as pipe dream.
"We have been at this for 25 years and we had hoped to be in commercial production by now," said Jeff Passmore, an executive vice president at ethanol-maker Iogen Inc. "What the president has done is -- perhaps -- put some wind in the sails."
Ottawa-based Iogen is already producing ethanol by exploiting the destructive nature of the fungus Trichoderma reesei, which caused the "jungle rot" of tents and uniforms in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Through a genetic modification known as directed evolution, Iogen has souped up fungus microbes so they spew copious amounts of digestive enzymes to break down straw into sugars. From there, a simple fermentation -- which brewers have been doing for centuries -- turns sugar into alcohol.
Iogen opened a small, $40 million factory in 2004 to show it can produce cellulosic ethanol in commercial quantities. In the last two years, it has produced 65,000 gallons of ethanol that is blended with 85 percent gasoline to fuel about three dozen company and Canadian government vehicles. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC has invested $40 million for a 30 percent ownership stake in Iogen; Petro-Canada and the Canadian government are also investors.
Now the company is ready to build a $350 million, commercial-scale factory in Canada or Idaho Falls, Idaho, next year if it can secure financing -- long one of the biggest stumbling blocks to bringing the stuff to gas pumps.
While conventional lenders are wary of investing in a new technology, the company is banking on winning a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Even under a best-case scenario, Passmore said Iogen won't be producing commercial quantities until 2009.
Other significant hurdles include how to widely distribute the fuel; getting auto manufacturers to make engines that will use it; and persuading gas stations to install ethanol pumps. There's hope that funding shortfalls and the remaining technological problems such as how to ship large amounts of ethanol will be overcome in the next few years.
Despite the challenges, Bush's endorsement and advancements in the field have re-energized alternative energy types.
While no commercial interest has advanced as far as Iogen, other biotech companies are engineering bacteria to spit out similar sugar-converting enzymes, and academics are pursuing more far-out sources.
At the California Institute of Technology, Jared Leadbetter is mining the guts of termites for possible tools to turn wood chips into ethanol. Leadbetter said there are some 200 microbes that live in termite bellies that help the household pest convert wood to energy.
Those microbes or their genetic material can be used to produce ethanol-making enzymes. So scientists at the Energy Department's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., are now sequencing the microbe genes in hopes of finding a key to ethanol production.
"We have this idea that microbes are pests," said Leadbetter, who has been studying termite guts for 15 years. "But most microbes are beneficial."
I'm huntin' wabbit! /elmerfudd
The Internet, which allows a lot of work and shopping to be done at home, is a good start. But proceeding from there will not be easy.
There is so much waste material available. One would think there is oil in them thar hills (of waste)
Microbes have been used for year to turn industial and municipal waste into inert sludge.
That's a big red flag right there as to the credibility of this "technology."
That there aren't venture capitalists stepping all over each other for a chance to watch a demonstration tells me that this is a con.
Most projects such as this are conducted in concert with a university lab and there are more venture capitalists hanging around those labs than four-eyed bio-nerds.
I smell a lab rat.
Guess I'm gonna haveta go out to the barn an dig around and find Grandpaws old still. LOL
The change has been $20 oil then vs $50 oil now. That makes an enormous difference to a venture capitalist.
Are you serious? There is a bug ping list? LMAO
lol...tell me about it. My computer has a four-barrell c-drive and a hyper-net connection to the internet...that baby can suck down the fuel!
LOL,,,how in the heck did you find that site? ROF
It's an eco-ping list actually, not a bug ping list, but there might really be one of those, too!
My understanding is that ethanol made from sources like corn and sugar actually costs more to produce than its worth as fuel. If you could cheaply produce ethanol from things like corncobs (especially without adding pollutants to the environment in the process), it might go a long way to making ethanol a more viable fuel. There are several threads on ethanol as fuel (pro and con) on FR by people who have much greater knowledge on the subject than I. I don't think it's junk science, though; I think it has a lot of promise. It might be a piece of the puzzle -- like the bacteria that eat oil used as part of environmental cleanup after a spill.
IIRC, Brazil produces 160,000 NET oil barrel equivalents of ethanol per day from sugar cane and plans to become energy independent mid-2006.
Interesting (seriesly), but can't resist asking if this stuff will work in my flying car??
The keys to kicking oil addiction are lowering the mass of vehicles per person transported, lowering the number of people transported and the number of miles they travel.
Anytime you can drink your cars fuel life is good.
Hunt sum wabbits fowh Jimmwee Ka-tah too.
But even if alcohol is a great fuel alternative, to produce it more cheaply from secondary sources (corn cobs instead of corn, hay, etc.) would make things even better, wouldn't it?
This is OUTRAGEOUS! These defenseless bugs are kept in tiny cages with no freedom of movement. They are force fed and given hormones to fatten them up.
Fight factory bug farms - buy Free range bug fuel only!
- BIFF (Bug & Insect Freedom Front)
And then there's http://dogbegone.com/ for the not so weak of heart.
Was that Bill Murray in the video?
Horror/disaster book out a few years ago about "biologics" that were designed to eat the oil spill residue.
Got out of control/mutated once they were released to clean up an oil spill off of CA's coast, and were found to be able to eat ANY form of rubber/plastic/poly-based organic compound. Windshield wipers, lube oil, rubber seals around airplane windshields, gaskets, pumps, seals, hoses, springs, clamps, ......
So, the nation and world was reduced to mid-1800's technology, since nothing more recent could operate.
Put a 4x9 sheet of plywood in your Beetle or econo-car, a couple of 100 lb bags of concrete in the trunk, and a few 12 foot long 2x12's tied on top.
And a few helpers.
While this is the only line of research that will turn ethanol into a productive alternative to oil, it has real and serious dangers to the environment if done improperly.
This kind of thing has been done before, and the research was stopped for pretty good environmental reasons. This method should be limited to recreating the enzymes and the digestive process, not genetically modifying whole organisms. If this can be done safely, and in commercial quantities, I'm all for it, including government research and funding.
This is why companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill are pushing ethanol fuel so hard :-)
Anti-greedy corporation-masquerading-as-environmentalists Sarcasm Torpedo ARMED. FIRE!!
"This is how Cargill works with customers." [Cue to Animal Planet video of a hungry croc emerging from the river to pull a single zebra out of the herd down for lunch...]
I have been keeping an eye on Brazil and I can't imagine they are going to switch to an ethanol economy if it doesn't have an economic foundation vis-a-vis oil. But what do I know?
Uncle Teddy's girth alone would light Cleveland for a week!
FReepmail me to be added or removed to the bug-PING list!
Something smells a little fishy here to me too. Sounds almost like one of those "once in a lifetime" stock opportunities that come through the rax machines daily.
I'm waitin for something to come crawling out of a landfill that just loves the taste of polyester plastics.
The first indication that it got loose is when people are driving down the interstates and allofasudden their bumper just sorta falls off.
All I know is that if they could find a way to harvest the power of those Japanese Beetles (the ones that look like Lady Bugs, but more orange-y) that they've unleashed upon us in the past few years, we would be in High Cotton, as far as our energy needs go. (Bad choice of words...I think they DID unleash them because they have something to do with cotton...)
It's February in Wisconsin, and I'm STILL flicking those little suckers off my countertops on a daily basis! I can't smash them because they stink to High Heaven when you do. Blech.
"Breaking cellulose into sugar to spin straw into ethanol has been studied for at least 50 years. But the technological hurdles and costs have been so daunting that most ethanol producers have relied on heavy government subsidies to squeeze fuel from corn."
Welcome to my world. Many layers of Wisconsin Buracracy are involved in foisting Ethanol onto the consumers in Wisconsin. :(
I always wondered why God put these things on earth. Now I know. It just goes to show, God don't make no junk.
Please ping me.
That's the reproductive cycle of Congressmen and other assorted government types you're describing.
ROFL! Is he a killer bee?