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
The Register (UK) ^ | Friday 6th June 2008 11:43 GMT | Lewis Page
Air New Zealand has announced that its planned airliner biofuel test will be carried out using biodiesel made from jatropha nuts. Jatropha plants, able to survive in deserts, could offer a biofuel source which would not compete with food production or drive deforestation.
"Air New Zealand is absolutely committed to being at the forefront of testing environmentally sustainable fuels," said the airline's chief, Rob Fyfe, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The test will be carried out later this year, using a Boeing 747 with engines from Rolls Royce. Boeing has been at the forefront of an industry push toward alternative fuels since last year, following soaring rises in the price of ordinary fossil jet fuel.
Earlier tests have seen aircraft running without problems on synthetics made from natural gas and coal, and Virgin partnered with Boeing earlier this year to power a jumbo using coconut and palm oils.
All of these efforts have drawn criticism, however. Alternate fossil fuels, while they could offer some security of supply and price, have no ecological benefits - quite the reverse, actually, as a tonne of gas or coal is burned for every tonne converted into synthetic jet juice. First-generation biofuel sources like coconut and palm are usually seen as lower-carbon - though just how much is a subject of vigorous debate - but they are also implicated in rising food prices and deforestation. It has also been credibly suggested that in any case, there just isn't enough farmland to run much transport on first-gen crop biofuel.
So-called second generation biofuels like jatropha or algae which don't need good land are seen by many in the aviation industry as their best way ahead. The technical problems of alternative propulsion for planes are much more severe than in cars, meaning that options such as battery power, hydrogen and so on aren't seen as viable.
Thus the ANZ trial is sure to be watched with interest. The airline believes it would need plantations totalling 1.25 million hectares to run entirely on jatropha. In the case of first-gen biofuel, that would equate to about 85 per cent of New Zealand's arable land, but hardy jatropha might, for instance, be grown in the deserts of Australia. There are 1.4 million square kilometres of deserts in Oz, enough to fuel a hundred airlines the size of ANZ if they were all covered in jatropha plants. ®
"Excrement is a terrible thing to waste.." -Hosepoop.. ugh pipe..
Count on the environazis nipping this in the bud like they have every other gene modification project. Should be pretty easy--"...it's the same stuff they put in hamburgers to kill your kids!!"
I like the idea of jatropha plants.
Gives the people in arid climates something useful to grow.
How about bugs who eat petrol and excrete waste? I read a sci-fi story about that once—it wasn’t pretty.
Washington DC is 64 sq miles, but I'd imagine its wasteland has now slimed into at least another 141 sq miles, so there you go!
and yet the socialists are still hell bent on trying to destroy American life and capitalism as the ‘solution’ instead of letting truly smart people create better alternatives.
I’ve always said it. Real science can solve problems. (But it has to be ‘real’ science)
And perhaps, with a little genetic engineering, so could we!
Do you realize what this would do to the economy of the Arab nations?
not to worry,
if its for real and works,
the democrats will make sure it doesn’t get to the market.
I wonder if we keep digging, maybe we’ll find the bugs that excreted the original petroleum.
Two holer porta-john’s, with some wheels, a small diesel engine, and synthetic ‘bugs’.
Poop your way down the highway.
The Russians and other geologist have a theory that crude is not a fossil fuel but is generated deep underground by microbes. My niece, who is a geologist confirmed this theory. Thus oil is a naturally renewable resource.
limitless oil bump for later..........
Oh, no. Frankenfuel. Frankenfuel. We must ban it now! (/s)
I don't know about Chicago, but replacing Detroit might be a good idea.
Poop your way down the highway.And if your car stalls you can just give it a quick poop-start.
Now that is INTERESTING. Ironic too, if successful.
We don't necessarily have to substitute the total oil consumption. Perhaps we could start with a facility the size of Detroit, which I'm willing to donate, because it's doing nothing but sucking up oxygen now, anyway ;-)