Looking Beyond Ethanol

Researchers are trying to domesticate Mother Nature and use “super bugs” like E. coli microbes for fuel.

"Nature is stubborn. It doesn’t like to be tampered with,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said in an Oct. 14 article. “Train it to give up an ancient habit, and soon it reverts to its old ways. For instance, how do you make prairie grass more amenable to being turned into sugar? How do you mutate E. coli microbes so that they gleefully turn that sugar into fuel? How, in short, do you liquefy shredded plants into jet fuel to power a flight to Paris? Dozens of private firms and government-funded labs are now trying to answer those questions.”

"This year’s oil-price shock and fears over global warming have reinvigorated the quest for the ultimate liquid fuel — one that is clean, cheap, easy to make, and doesn’t compete with food stocks,” the article continued. “Nature took millions of years to turn dead microorganisms into oil and gas. Scientists now want to trick nature into reducing that to a day or so.

Jay Keasling, a noted microbiologist who directs the new government-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute in the San Francisco Bay area, describes the challenge to WSJ succinctly: “We need to find a way to domesticate nature so we can create energy from waste.”

WSJ noted that “success will require scientific breakthroughs at every step, from designing the perfect feedstocks to hitting on the ideal microbe for turning that roughage into fuel. The federal government wants biofuel production to replace a quarter of all gasoline consumed in the U.S. by 2025. The nation’s corn-based ethanol factories are now churning out around 6.5 billion gallons a year — just over 2 percent of the country’s gasoline intake.

“But ethanol’s drawbacks are well known — not least of which that it takes huge amounts of energy to produce,” the WSJ article continued. “Keasling’s lab is shooting for something far superior: a newfangled hydrocarbon made from biomass. The advantages of a pure biofuel are numerous. The government estimates that the U.S. could harvest 1.3 million tons of biomass feedstocks a year, ranging from special grasses to wood chips. Unlike ethanol, the fuel would also be a direct alternative to gasoline and sold through the same pumps. Making it happen, though, requires some serious doctoring."

(Source: Wall Street Journal)

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