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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: 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.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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