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A microscope image of the genetically modified bacterias shows a number of diesel molecules which it is forming.  (Source: CNN)

Biochemist Stephen del Cardayre is the vice president of research and development at LS9. He holds a vial of his company's prized bacteria. The brown fluid at the top of the vial is diesel that the bacteria excreted, mixed with water.  (Source: CNN)
Genetic engineering yields hope for fossil fuel replacement

DailyTech previously covered startup LS9 Inc.'s efforts to genetically engineer microbes to produce synthetic fuels.  After initial efforts to genetically modify both yeast and bacteria to produce long-chain hydrocarbons, they have since focused their efforts on a particular common bacterium -- E. Coli.

E. Coli is commonly found in feces, and the LS9 researchers have succeeded in a rather ironic goal -- genetically modifying the bacteria to excrete diesel fuel.  After much research and genetic modification, LS9 says it has used a variety of common sugar metabolic pathways to force E. Coli to convert virtually any sugar-containing substance in part to carbon chains virtually indistinguishable with diesel.

The bacteria "poop" out this black gold, while using part of the sugar to fuel their growth and reproduction as well.  The net result is that any carbon source can be turned into synthetic fuel by the economic bacteria. 

Biochemist Stephen del Cardayre, LS9 vice president of research and development, says his company has come a long way.  He states, "We started in my garage two years ago, and we're producing barrels today, so things are moving pretty quickly."

He explains the process of creating the microbes, stating, "So these are bacteria that have been engineered to produce oil.  They started off like regular lab bacteria that didn't produce oil, but we took genes from nature, we engineered them a bit [and] put them into this organism so that we can convert sugar to oil."

While the microbes are currently only producing diesel fuel, they could easily be tuned to produce gasoline or jet fuel according to Mr. Cardayre.  Best of all, the bacteria don't have to use simple sugars such as corn, a major criticism of the ethanol infrastructure.  The increased demand for corn by the ethanol industry is accused of raising food prices.  Instead they can use a variety of "foods" including sugar cane, landscaping waste, wheat straw, and wood chips.    The microbes used are a "friendly" noninfectious type of E. Coli that lack the proteins needed to invade the human body, which some strains of E. Coli are capable of doing.

Robert McCormick, principal engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado remains skeptical of LS9's claims.  He adds, "Scalability is really the critical issue.  If you've got something that you can make work in a test tube, that's good, but you've got to be able to make it work on a very large scale to have an impact on our petroleum imports."

LS9 is not only confident they can scale the technology, but they also believe that their oil will be significant to the oil found in fossil fuel deposits.  Typical oil deposits contain significant amounts of sulfur that get released into the atmosphere, creating acid rain which destroys forests, limestone, marble, and damages lake ecosystems.  It also contains benzene, a carcinogen that can cause cancer even in very small quantities.

The E. Coli produced diesel has none of these unwanted extras, it's just pure black gold.  Unlike ethanol, it can be pumped along existing infrastructure, LS9 is quick to point out.

While they hope to be entering commercial level production in the next couple years, they acknowledge that even if they continue their path of unlikely and rapid success, their technology is not a magical solution to the global energy crisis.  Mr. Cardayre states, "I think that the answer to reducing our petroleum-import problem and reducing the carbon emissions from transportation is really threefold.  It involves replacement fuels like biofuels, it involves using much more efficient vehicles than we use today, and it involves driving less."

He says that LS9's success and continued prospects are only thanks to constant collaboration by a diverse team of experts from many different professions.  He continues, "The fun of the challenge from the science perspective is that you do have farmers and biologists and entomologists, and biochemists and chemical engineers, and process engineers and business people and investors all working to solve this, and it ranges anywhere from a political issue to a technical issue."



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catch-22
By wvh on 8/12/2008 6:18:53 PM , Rating: 2
I can foresee the same problems popping up – you still need a lot of sugar or other food for the bacteria, and this will have a negative impact when scaled to anywhere near the amount needed to be useful as a replacement for "real" oil.

The real problem is overpopulation. It's not going to be easy with existing forms of energy sources to use natural resources for providing all human beings with all the power they need. Drinkable water, agricultural space and yield, oil... It's all getting a bit tight, and that won't improve. There will gradually be more people than natural resources.




RE: catch-22
By Choppedliver on 8/12/08, Rating: -1
RE: catch-22
By michael2k on 8/12/2008 7:46:53 PM , Rating: 4
Uh, like how computers were technological marvels 20 years ago but old hat now?

Or how cell phones were ginormous 20 years ago but in everyone's pocket now?

20 years is a good number, unfortunately; if this means anything then in 20 years we will all be powered by bio-diesel from L9


RE: catch-22
By porkpie on 8/12/2008 8:12:39 PM , Rating: 2
I think you mean more like 40 years. 20 years ago computers were being sold by college students from their dorm rooms.

The fact is the OP has a point. Most of these 'inventions' like this just plain aren't practical and will never see the light of day.


RE: catch-22
By Rob94hawk on 8/12/2008 11:11:37 PM , Rating: 3
Hopefully in another 20 years we wont need fossil fuels. But that's wishful thinking.


RE: catch-22
By afkrotch on 8/12/2008 11:15:42 PM , Rating: 2
In 88, there were around 45 million PCs in homes in the US. 40 years ago seems about right.

Anyways, not all inventions will make it big, but they do open eyes. This may not be the one that prevails, but it may lead the path for another that does.

I'm not gonna expect such an invention to come out and hit the market within the year. It's not like this one is even complete. They probably did a press release, just to get ppl to hear and possibly invest money.


RE: catch-22
By mindless1 on 8/13/2008 3:01:38 PM , Rating: 2
20 years was fine, in 88 most people didn't have a PC, even colleges back then didn't have good access to computer resources outside a few fields unless you're talking about sitting at a mainframe terminal, not a PC.


RE: catch-22
By DFranch on 8/13/2008 3:36:40 PM , Rating: 2
I started college in 1987. I had a PC at home and we had PC's at college. we also had a mainframe at college.


RE: catch-22
By DFranch on 8/13/2008 3:39:00 PM , Rating: 2
The point he was trying to make is that he would like to see one of these breakthroughs actually start making a difference. Whether PC's were in a similar position 20 or 30 years ago is kind of irrelevant.


RE: catch-22
By Choppedliver on 8/13/2008 3:09:07 AM , Rating: 1
How old are you?

In 1988, I had an Amiga 1000. In 1982 I was programming an Apple II+... and I know plenty of people on this site go back farther than me. Computers have been out for a LONG time.

Plenty of inventions in history have come along and turned industries upside down practically overnight. We need one of those NOW.


RE: catch-22
By afkrotch on 8/13/2008 3:14:43 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Plenty of inventions in history have come along and turned industries upside down practically overnight. We need one of those NOW.


Name one. "oooooohhhhhs" and "aaaahhhhhs" doesn't put the invention into mass production and into everyone's homes overnight. Not even "practically" overnight.


RE: catch-22
By Choppedliver on 8/13/2008 4:43:00 AM , Rating: 5
The atom bomb...

Lets see the Cotton Gin increased cotton production 50x "overnight"

Penicillin, other antibiotics

Immunizations/vaccines ... Polio? Small Pox?

The wheel (ha)

Typewriters

Internet... Ok it wasnt invented in the the early 90s, but once it was made available to the public, and easy to use with the HTTP protocol its adoption was very quick.

The camera

Digital Cameras have done a number on the traditional film industry in a relatively "overnight" time frame. They have been widespread for a number of years now.

Toilets

The printing press was pretty good Id say. I didnt say "put it in everyones home" those were your words

Crack

GPS guided weapons

Light bulb was a pretty good one

Gunpowder

Guns

Birth Control

Teflon

Plastic

http protocol

Eyeglasses

wifi

CD's both audio and data storage

You can debate time frames all you want, debate their importance all you want. Some of these took longer than others, some are more important. My point is that some inventions take many years to achieve a high level of adoption, some don't. We need one that doesn't. Not every invention takes 20+ years to become commercially viable.


RE: catch-22
By Jaybus on 8/13/2008 10:35:28 AM , Rating: 1
In spite of high ideals, cost is the factor that most affects the adoption rate of new technology. Most of your list started out as expensive items used only by a few early adopters, then became ubiquitous after the cost became significantly lower. Infrastructure plays a big role in that cost reduction. Technologies that requires an entire new infrastructure, such as hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol fueled cars, are going to be more slowly adopted than technologies that can utilize existing infrastructure, such as this bio-engineered diesel fuel.

So, this may actually be a quick solution if it indeed can be scaled sufficiently and they can also produce gasoline in addition to diesel. Any solution requiring everyone buy new cars is certainly going to take years longer than a solution that works with existing cars.


RE: catch-22
By inighthawki on 8/13/2008 9:24:11 PM , Rating: 2
I think a serious problem also has something to do with the fact that many businesses are scared to try new technology. New inventions are created all the time, many especially useful and convenient; however, what motivates the businesses to use this product? Why should ford begin mass producing electric/hydrogen cars if their line of gas powered vehicles are still selling like hotcakes (replace ford with whatever company u wish...). Why should gas stations start selling hydrogen fuel and offer recharge stations when they make money from gas? One of the best ways of selling out new technology is by merging the new and old technologies into one.

A big example is a processor. When amd released their athlon 64 line of cpus, not many people used it for the 64-bit advantage. If the cpu was ONLY 64-bit, it wouldn't have sold many at all, but because it ALSO supported the x86 arch, it allowed people to be ready for the new technology wherever and whenever it was offered.

Not to say that is is incredibly easy to merge hydrogen powered engines with gas powered ones, but look at the volt for example, electric motor with a gas backup, which gives the consumer the ability to move on to new technology, while being able to use old technology as a backup in case something goes "wrong" and their investment isn't supported where they are.


RE: catch-22
By FITCamaro on 8/12/2008 6:29:56 PM , Rating: 3
Take all the grass clippings that get collected and thrown in the city dumps and convert them to fuel. Problem solved.

And all the more reason to find ways off this rock.


RE: catch-22
By LuxFestinus on 8/12/2008 8:25:32 PM , Rating: 2
Not just grass clippings, but take fecal waste and convert that too.


RE: catch-22
By Jedi2155 on 8/13/2008 1:12:28 AM , Rating: 5
Making poop from poop and driving with poop...I love it!


RE: catch-22
By OAKside24 on 8/13/2008 3:12:10 AM , Rating: 2
Me too, but I can only imagine the smell.


RE: catch-22
By ceefka on 8/13/2008 7:51:06 AM , Rating: 2
Just when you thought diesel had lost its distinctive smell.

This puts a whole new angle on the toilets at gasstations...


RE: catch-22
By therealnickdanger on 8/13/2008 12:19:42 PM , Rating: 4
Where's Mr. Fusion when you need him?


RE: catch-22
By rudolphna on 8/13/2008 8:14:54 PM , Rating: 2
maybe if everyone on the planet drives 88mph on this biodiesel...........


RE: catch-22
By wordsworm on 8/17/2008 9:26:13 PM , Rating: 2
I can just see lineups of homeless people and college students giving their feces in exchange for a free cup of coffee.


RE: catch-22
By ira176 on 8/13/2008 11:14:56 PM , Rating: 2
The town I'm from already captures methane from the landfill and uses it to burn solid waste at the sewage treatment plant, and to power parts of the plant.


RE: catch-22
By Googer on 8/13/08, Rating: -1
RE: catch-22
By DFranch on 8/13/2008 3:41:40 PM , Rating: 2
The article said the bacteria was incapable of infecting humans.


RE: catch-22
By CascadingDarkness on 8/14/2008 12:16:27 PM , Rating: 2
I'd be waiting for an economical do-it-yourself home kit. Tank to dump your clippings in, plus a handy little vial of ready bacteria.

An almost free tank of gas would give me more incentive to work harder in the yard.
Just need a diesel car/lawn mower.


RE: catch-22
By HrilL on 8/12/2008 7:35:02 PM , Rating: 2
Did you not read the full article? It clearly states that any carbon based product can be used that’s all plant matter and you could even use dead animals. Do you know how many billions on tunes of stuff we currently bury in the ground that could be used to feed these bacteria?


RE: catch-22
By Hypernova on 8/12/2008 9:13:53 PM , Rating: 2
one word: Soylent Oil!!


RE: catch-22
By Durrr on 8/13/2008 7:28:06 AM , Rating: 1
ITTTTTSSS MADEEEE OFFF PEEEOPLEE *foams at the mouth*


RE: catch-22
By DJMiggy on 8/13/2008 12:39:30 PM , Rating: 2
What about soylent cowpies?


RE: catch-22
By OxBow on 8/14/2008 3:31:01 PM , Rating: 2
Damn funy


RE: catch-22
By michael2k on 8/12/2008 7:50:05 PM , Rating: 2
I think you meant over-consumption when you wrote over-population.

Over-population doesn't effect Europe, Japan, or the US... even China has a negative birth-rate, which means in 60 years they will be underpopulated.


RE: catch-22
By paydirt on 8/13/2008 11:43:22 AM , Rating: 2
over-population is a valid concern, IMO. If the population was 20% smaller, we'd probably use at least 10% less resources...?


RE: catch-22
By michael2k on 8/13/2008 2:55:23 PM , Rating: 3
That's wishful thinking I think. And the point is still not overpopulation but overconsumption. Our space trivially handles the population (in terms of shelter, food, and power), it is the luxuries (consumption) that is the issue.

Imagine the US. If we had 20% less population, do you really think we would use 10% less resources?

What happens is that people want more things, and the only way we get more things is if we have less children (because we can divert resources away from raising kids and instead into HDTVs, iPods, SUVs, etc). This has been happening EVERYWHERE, from the US, to China, to Japan, and Europe.

So from some perspectives our resource drain stops (we eat less for example, since our population is smaller), we drive more or buy more or do more instead.


RE: catch-22
By Alexstarfire on 8/13/2008 1:06:36 AM , Rating: 2
I do you foresee this being a problem? It doesn't need pure sugar, like corn or sugar cane. It can use things like landscaping waste and wood chips. Both of those are in plentiful supply. Though, we'll probably have to start planting more trees, but we already need to do that. Did you even read the article?


RE: catch-22
By Myg on 8/13/2008 4:39:48 AM , Rating: 2
The whole "Overpopulation" stuff is a bit nonsense; Theres plenty of space for many more humans. Besides: people dont need power to live, and have done so for a very long time without.

The only thing that way of thinking has ever done was make people look down on the "third world" (Usualy having larger families), which has stopped alot of people from actually being charitable towards them.

What we need is more sharing of resources, pretty simple solution; but the hardest to do when all we are taught to do is be greedy.


RE: catch-22
By mindless1 on 8/13/2008 3:05:48 PM , Rating: 2
Overpopulation is a valid concern, because we're not talking about the amount of space to build a house or agricultural land, we're talking about the fuel needs of a certain population density, whether that amount of land can provide enough fuel for their future needs through all resources possible.

It becomes less valid when considering the questionable increases in population, but we can't ignore that the average lifespan is increasing and the 2nd and 3rd worlds are going to be consuming more fuel in the future.


RE: catch-22
By masher2 (blog) on 8/13/2008 3:49:23 PM , Rating: 2
> "Overpopulation is a valid concern..."

For the Western World, underpopulation is a far larger concern than overpopulation. Nearly all of Europe is, barring immigration, not even sustaining its own population levels. In fact, at the current rate of progress, Western mankind will be effectively extinct in less than 100 years.


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