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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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RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By wingless on 8/13/2008 12:10:45 AM , Rating: 0
Which would you rather have?

1) A slow release of CO2 that our ecosystem can cope with.

2) A continuation of the accelerated CO2 emissions our civilization has produced that has reached the highest atmospheric level of C02 in 45 Million years.

Because we think like you, we doom ourselves. Our egos tend not to care about a future past a few years into our own which is why we're in this predicament in the first place. Its also the reason people don't think about planning for retirement properly until its too late too. Sorry, I'm in the financial industry and I see these trends everywhere now.

My point is this: humans are short sighted and it that leads to problems at the personal level all the way up to problems that affect civilization as a whole.


RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By masher2 (blog) on 8/13/2008 12:38:04 AM , Rating: 5
> "A continuation of the accelerated CO2 emissions our civilization has produced "

You're still missing the point. This process is CO2 neutral; there is no "accelerated CO2 emissions". Whether a leaf decays naturally, or whether it is converted into diesel and then burnt, the emissions are unchanged.

> "Because we think like you, we doom ourselves"

Utterly untrue. From a geologic perspective, our atmosphere is currently CO2 impoverished. Throughout most of the Earth's history, levels were much higher, as much as 20 times higher than they are today. In fact, during the Cryogenian Period, CO2 levels were over 4000 ppm (they stand at 380 ppm today), yet the Earth was the coldest its been in all recorded history, with glaciers covering nearly the entire planet.

Every new report from the UN's IPCC scales down climate sensitivity to CO2 still further, and the most recent research indicates that the sensitivity is so low as to make any amount of warming essentially insignificant, if not even beneficial to mankind.

CO2 is airborne plant food, esential for all life on the planet. Even at the level we currently burn fossil fuels, nature still releases 30 times as much each year as we do. Commercial greenhouses artificially raise CO2 levels to increase plant growth...and research shows that increased CO2 in the atmosphere is already boosting plant growth, a fact which is not only good for both agriculture and the biosphere in general, but which acts as a negative feedback to eventually halt further CO2 increases.


RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By William Gaatjes on 8/13/2008 4:25:32 AM , Rating: 2
I have a question,

What will the rise of CO2 levels in the air do for the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth surface and the frequentiespectrum of that sunlight. It looks like massive amounts of CO2 in the air is good but as always the old saying goes :
Too much of anything is not good for you.

Yes, there where iceages before we got industrialized. That just shows there are more ways to Rome.


RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By ceefka on 8/13/2008 8:02:13 AM , Rating: 2
It sounds like you are referring to global dimming. That is caused by particles, not CO2, in the atmosphere creating a sort of shade though it is related to combustion of fuels.


RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By William Gaatjes on 8/13/2008 8:54:34 AM , Rating: 2
Well, i was thinking of particles. Energized ones to be exact. I wonder how high the CO2 comes and the upper layers respond to that. Does the CO2 get high enough and can it be energized and cause certain reactions ?
I am just interested, i don't really know much about it.

I am thinking of the troposhere, stratospere and higher.


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