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