Skip to comments.Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol
Posted on 06/14/2008 12:12:56 PM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach
Some diesel fuel produced by genetically modified bugs
Ten years ago I could never have imagined Id be doing this, says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to especially the ones coming out of business school this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.
He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs very, very small ones so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.
Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls renewable petroleum. After that, he grins, its a brave new world.
Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. All of us here everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency, Mr Pal says. <
What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this Oil 2.0 will not only be renewable but also carbon negative meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.
LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firms president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company? he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being prerevenue.
Inside LS9s cluttered laboratory funded by $20 million of start-up capital from investors including Vinod Khosla, the Indian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Micro-systems Mr Pal explains that LS9s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA. Five to seven years ago, that process would have taken months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says. Now it can take weeks and cost maybe $20,000.
Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result.
For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant.
The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or woodchips in the South.
Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready.
The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.
However, to substitute Americas weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.
That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale.
Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, well be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011, says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.
Are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? Its not the same as with food, Mr Pal says. Were putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When were done with them, theyre destroyed.
Besides, he says, there is greater good being served. I have two children, and climate change is something that they are going to face. The energy crisis is something that they are going to face. We have a collective responsibility to do this.
Google has set up an initiative to develop electricity from cheap renewable energy sources
Craig Venter, who mapped the human genome, has created a company to create hydrogen and ethanol from genetically engineered bugs
The US Energy and Agriculture Departments said in 2005 that there was land available to produce enough biomass (nonedible plant parts) to replace 30 per cent of current liquid transport fuels
so, how do they know the difference between ‘waste’ and other forms of carbon?
When these “bugs” escape into the environment; how long before the planet is covered in black ooze?
Bugs extract a lot of CO2 when digesting their food. What are these people thinking? I thought CO2 was the great evil.
In recent months biofuels have earned a reputation blacker than the crude oil they are meant to be replacing. No sooner do we learn that rainforests from Indonesia to Brazil are being razed to farm green fuels for the West than intensive production of biofuels is blamed for the current crisis in world food prices. And apparently some biofuels create more potentially harmful ozone than petrol does.
Before we give up on alternative fuels and dive back into an ever-shallower pool of crude oil, though, lets spare a thought for a new batch of biofuels being cooked up in laboratories worldwide. They hold the promise of more efficient, cleaner energy sources that dont compete with forests or food crops for growing space. Airbus, the maker of the A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, announced last week that it expects these second-generation biofuels to make up (eventually) a third of all aviation fuel.
Getting new biofuels off the ground is taking some doing. Starchy and sugary crops such as wheat and sugar cane make good biofuels because they are easily converted to ethanol, while oily sunflower and palm plants can readily be made into biodiesel. It would make much more sense, however, to produce biofuels from weeds growing on land that cant be farmed, or from agricultural waste, old wood chips or even secondhand paper.
The worlds biggest second-generation biofuel factory is due to open in Georgia, USA, next year. Range Fuels Soperton plant is expected to produce 16m gallons of ethanol biofuel annually from logging waste and grasses. This may not sound a lot in global terms but it is the start of something much bigger: a 13 billion-gallon ocean of second-generation biofuels that the USA is aiming to produce by 2022.
As long as they can move the Blues Clubs, I think that sounds like a good site.
I think he got a big boost from the Kramerica CEO...
“Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol”
From The Times
June 14, 2008
Forgotten to fill the petrol tank? Worried that you won't find a garage that still has any diesel, because of the strike by fuel tanker drivers? Fearful that even if the garage does have petrol, you don't know if you'll be able to afford any on account of the numbers in the price window at the petrol station spinning round, these days, as randomly as the drums of a one-armed bandit?
If you can hold out for just a few more years, science is galloping towards ridding the world both of its dependency on oil and the climate damage caused by burning it. We report (see page 52) two developments that promise to liberate us from our thirst for crude. If one of them proves successful, Rockefeller's famous recipe for growing rich - Get up early, work late, and strike oil - will have to be tweaked to: Get up early, work late, and acquire some of the designer bugs that scientists are developing in a Californian laboratory that excrete hydrocarbons that act as ersatz crude oil. If all goes to plan, the Californian biofuels industry expects such synthetic fuels to be available as early as 2011.
Meanwhile, at Tsukuba University in Japan, Professor Makoto Watanabe believes he has made a breakthrough in his lifelong search for a species of alga that sweats crude oil, a scientific leap he ambitiously imagines turning his country from a thirsty energy importer to an oil exporter.
The professor's algae produce oil that not only yield more energy than they consume, but are vastly more efficient in generating biofuels than are corn or rapeseed. The financial arithmetic is still problematic. But who knows? The age may be dawning when we not only grow our own vegetables, but our own diesel, too.
You’d be surprised at what a bacteria can be engineered to do.
Wasn't that a Ben Bova novel? I believe I still have it around, somewhere.
Including space needed to get things moved back and forth, we're talking 16 miles by 16 miles. Stick it in the middle of farm country, and nobody'd even notice it who didn't have business with it.
Unfortunately, the Middle East also sits on most of the world’s supply of crap.
They’ve discovered a productive use of Democrats!
?? I thought we were being told that corn was being razed to produce ethanol! Which is different! Oh.
You MIGHT owe me a new keyboard!
No more gas stations. Just stop by the side of the road and scoop up some fuel out of the ditch!