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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: Screw driving less
By masher2 on 8/13/2008 12:49:27 AM , Rating: 5
> "If in 100 years we've so thoroughly fucked this planet that 80% of the species on this planet are extinct, and we as a species are slowly dieing...."

Fortunately we utterly lack the power to do that. Not even a full-scale nuclear war would have effects anywhere near that severe. As for pollution and/or climate change causing such effects, the facts do not bear out any such sky-is-falling scenario.

> "Americans aren't willing to give up some of the comforts of our society..."

The striving for the "comforts of society" is what brought cave men out of their flea-bitten caves in the first place. It's the reason most children don't die long before reaching maturity, why adults no longer die from minor infections and toothaches, why malnutrition and starvation no longer run rampant, why we're no longer regularly eaten by wolves and killed by bears, why something as simple as an early frost or a bad crop fungus no longer means the deaths of entire cities.

Always striving to have a better, easier, more comfortable life is what made us great. And the largest danger civilization faces today is from attitudes such as yours, that this very striving is somehow evil and pernicious. That desire -- coupled with our intelligence in implementing it -- is the only thing that separates us from a life that is nasty, brutal, and short.

RE: Screw driving less
By Mathos on 8/13/2008 1:07:33 AM , Rating: 2
Well, look at it this way. How quickly did humanity move through the evolution of transportation motors. How long was it between the time we started using steam engines, and the time we started using internal combustion engines. Now look how long it's taking us to move away from the obsolete internal combustion engine to something more efficient or something that doesn't use fossil fuels at all. The internal combustion engine has been obsolete for over 50 years.

Unfortunately this is what happens when you live in a society that allows it's governing bodies to line their pockets with money from the very companies that are holding us back. So I'm glad to see an independent company trying to solve part of the issue. I get a laugh every time I hear about a company like Exxon investing a few million dollars a year into research of alternative fuels, when they report record quarterly profits of 12 billion Dollars.

RE: Screw driving less
By NEOCortex on 8/13/2008 1:59:05 PM , Rating: 3
ICEs might be inefficient, but they're certainly not obsolete.

RE: Screw driving less
By mindless1 on 8/13/2008 3:10:58 PM , Rating: 2
It's never that simple, whether it be 100 years or 1000 we are still having a negative impact on the planet and the ideas we have about comfort and convenience at any cost will have to change whether it be by choice or necessity.

Of course mankind has made great strides but the goal is not to go back to the caveman era, it's to find a balance and it will necessarily include concepts you've argued against, that we can't reasonably be a throw-away society forever.

RE: Screw driving less
By masher2 on 8/13/2008 3:47:23 PM , Rating: 2
> "we are still having a negative impact on the planet "

Taken from the viewpoint of what's best for mankind, we're having an incredibly positive impact on the planet.

In fact, that explains the (strictly modern) viewpoint that nature is a kind, gentle, nurturing environment. In primitive times, nature was a force to be feared.

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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