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Biotech Power Science

Echeria Coli Co-Opted To Make Gasoline 331

Posted by Zonk
from the good-first-step-i-guess dept.
Flask_Man writes "Technology Review has an article about a small biotech company in the Silicon Valley that has successfully produced renewable gasoline from genetically modified bacteria, including the nefarious E.Coli bacteria. A pilot plant is slated to be constructed in California in 2008, and it is claimed that hundreds of different hydrocarbon molecules are capable of being produced. The modified bacteria make and excrete hydrocarbon molecules that are the length and molecular structure the company desires. From the article: 'To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you're left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.'" We discussed something similar to this earlier this year.
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Echeria Coli Co-Opted To Make Gasoline

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  • Curious... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:31AM (#20224555) Homepage
    So how do they get past the fact that e.Coli dies in gasoline? how did they change the bug to have a higher tolerance to their new unnatural excretions?

    If you can keep the bugs alive in the media and the desired product then your output will be far higher than when the bugs end up killing themselves quickly.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:55AM (#20224893)
    random fun fact: only about 10% of the DNA in your body is human
  • by roman_mir (125474) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:03AM (#20224973) Homepage Journal
    probably a bioengineered algae, that produces octane after exposure to sunlight. - Of-course this is great for producing fuel, but beware, once (not if but when) this kind of thing breaks loose and populates the seas and the oceans with itself by outcompeting the normal algae (the kind that produces Oxygen,) this planet is fucked.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:3, Interesting)

    by croddy (659025) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:33AM (#20225367)

    raising the tax would discourage SUV owners the least. when you're driving around in a $65,000 cadillac escalade, you've already demonstrated you don't have any understanding of cost. charging $4.50 instead of $3.50 a gallon is not likely to affect you either.

    raising fuel taxes is, however, realistically likely to break the bank for folks who are already driving used economy cars because that's all they can afford.

    a more appropriate approach would be to simply regulate the vehicles off the road by passing appropriate licensing laws. anyone who's spent time on a U.S. road in the past five years will tell you: SUV drivers are the dumbest drivers on the road, largely because the size of the vehicle grossly exceeds their motorway intelligence quotient. placing SUVs in a separate vehicle classification and requiring more stringent driving skill tests would quickly disqualify most of the folks who have been presuming to drive these vehicles.

  • by cdn-programmer (468978) <terr@@@terralogic...net> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:33AM (#20225371)
    (BOPD = barrels oil per day)

    One of the best sources for this information is the BP statistical review of world energy. You can find it on the BP website: http://www.bp.com/productlanding.do?categoryId=684 8&contentId=7033471 [bp.com]

    It doesn't much matter what you start with: raw crude or refined fuel... what is at issue is the percentage. 30% of either is about 7 million barrels per day equivalent and lordy I have no idea where they plan to get it. Alberta for instance is running flat out trying to boost tar sands production to about 3.3 million BOPD by 2015.

    Note that world production is around 81 million BOPD. World production is close to being flat. On page 10 of the report we see that Saudi Arabia's production declined. This is very significant when you consider that the largest field in the world... the Ghawar field - is in Saudia Arabia and has been reported as being in decline. If so then the top four (4) fields are in decline and these fields produce say about 15% of the world's production. Normally when fields go into decline the production shortly thereafter drops by about 10% per year. If so then the world will shortly be seeing declines at least in the range of about 1.5% per year which will exceed a million BOPD and this will compound exponentialy.

    We better hope someone figures out how to make up the shortfall. If not we all go on an oil diet. Personally I see nothing over the horizon other than perhaps high prices and gas rationing.
  • by Jasin Natael (14968) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:49AM (#20225573)

    Hey, if it's all being bioengineered, why not make migratory plants? In the winter, they all swim in to shore to be harvested. Sky's the limit, right? Or perhaps we just engineer them to clump into miles-wide clusters, and throw a hook or two in to tow the whole thing to shore.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:02PM (#20225743)

    Okay, so they can eat corn. That's okay, because I'd expect that we COULD grow a hell of a lot of it were the market to make it worthwhile. But...

    If they'd consume offal, landfill material, non-rec-plastic, nuclear waste, etc, that would be much better. That's essentially what the earth does to make conventional oil, isn't it? Dead plants, animals, etc compressed into peat, into crude? Lets find a useful product to make from all this trash we create!

    Replicate that, and you'd have something interesting. Kinda like this: http://www.mindfully.org/Energy/2003/Anything-Into -Oil1may03.htm [mindfully.org]

    Though, if I recall correctly, I heard that the plant was closed, due to the smell.
  • by BrokenHalo (565198) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:03PM (#20225765)

    Hey, if it's all being bioengineered, why not make migratory plants?

    1. Migratory plants are usually algae, and
    2. Yes, we can do that (i.e. tweak algal DNA to produce specific molecules), but...
    3. It's a lot harder to insert useful sequences into the DNA of a eukaryotic (i.e. plant, fungal or animal) cell than it is to do the same with a prokaryotic (bacterial) cell. E. coli tends to be the whipping-boy of molecular biologists since its biochemistry is so well-researched, so it is the obvious choice for this job.

  • by cdn-programmer (468978) <terr@@@terralogic...net> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:23PM (#20226053)
    Give us a break!

    Gasoline and liquid motor fuels are primarily alkanes. These have the chemical formula of CnH(2n+2). If n=8 you have octane and I assume you have heard of the octane rating of gasoline.

    You _can't_ have gasoline without carbon unless you are god and can change the laws of chemistry.

    Ethanol is C2H5OH. It is a partically oxidized alkane. n=2 in this case. the OH makes it an alcohol. The reason ethanol carries less energy than gasoline is simply because it is partially oxidized. Note it is liquid also because of the oxygen in the molecule. Methanol: CH3OH is also liquid for the same reason.

    It would make sense to convert Methane (CH4) to methanol (CH3OH) instead of trucking and shipping it around as Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) except for a couple factors:

    1) methanol is poisonous. <rant> This is why it is sometimes used to denatured alcohols. This is also why methanol is often used instead of ethanol even though industrially ethanol can be made for about the same cost as methanol and often either will do the job.

        The idea is that instead of the kid simply getting drunk if he gets into the photocopier cleaner... we blind him or kill him. Anyone working with alcohol based wood finishes also gets caught in this trap.... instead of using a reletively safe alchohol (ethanol) - one gets exposed to a known carcinogen instead (methanol). Why? Well we wouldn't want the guy to mistake his shelac thiner for a beer now would we? Better to kill him or blind him instead. Righto! </rant>

    Industrially if we have large amounts of CH3OH being hauled around then expect many accidents. Its a poison we are better off without.

    2) that oxygen in the molecule both reduces the energy content per gallon as well as adding dead weight. The OH will eventually end up as H2O when the fuel is fully oxidized. One way to look at this is that chemically by weight it is about 30% water already.

    If you manage to eliminate all the carbon from gasoline you are left with hydrogen. There is more hydrogen in a gallon of gasoline than in a gallon of liguid hydrogen. Also - there is a LOT more energy.

    In fact - we have a serious shortage of hydrogen. If we had a surplus of hydrogen then one of the best ways to transport it would be to toss in some carbon and turn it into gasoline. This is what they do in order to make synthetic crude. Its part of the Tar Sands operations. Shell for instance has built a HUGE plant in Alberta to do precisely this.

    The short of it is that hydrogen as a motor fuel probably doesn't make much sense. Ideas of converting alkanes to hydrogen by eliminating the carbon don't make much sense. The CO2 is a plant nutrient anyways. The biosphere can easily cope with CO2 levels even 20x greater than they are now. Biological studies of crop production in greenhouses for decades have been focused on CO2 enrichment.

    As for global warming driven by CO2. IMHO its hooey. One needs a better handle on the most important green house gas: Water Vapour. Levels of water vapour in the tropics and sub tropics are in the vicinty of 40,000 PPM compared with CO2 in the range of 380 PPM. We do not know if water vapour goes up 5,000 or down 5,000 and we don't know if there are any long or short term trends. Meanwhile it is true that CO2 is up by about 90 ppm over the last century. With the increase in CO2 we see an increase in plant growth.

    Geologically, CO2 has been over 15x greater than now. Our paleoclimatologists say CO2 is not linked to planetary temperatures in the geological record.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:51PM (#20226479) Journal
    Some random maths:

    The US uses roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day.

    A refinery produces roughly 20 gallons of gasoline per barrel, giving 400 million gallons of gasoline per day.

    Per year, this works out at 146 billion gallons.

    At 2,000 gallons per acre (presumably per annum), you would need 73 million acres of land to meet these needs.

    According to the CIA Factbook, the USA has an area of 9,826,630 square kilometres, which works out to 2428213150 acres.

    In order to meet the current needs of the USA, 3% of the landmass would have to be dedicated to growing fuel crops. I might have missed a significant figure somewhere here, because this seems like a much smaller amount than I would have guessed.

  • by Afell001 (961697) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @01:20PM (#20226831)
    If I remember my biology correctly, in addition to several bacteria that can break cellulose into less complex sugars, there is the entire fungal kingdom that has made it their existence to break down any number of plant and animal material (to include cellulose, I'm sure) and to do it efficiently (possibly more efficient than bacteria).

    We know how to grow and culture fungus. We know how to grow and culture e. coli. Essentially, what we are left with is a brewing process that feeds wood pulp, straw, recycled paper, livestock waste, etc., on one end, and outputs refined gasoline on the other. And I'm sure the biomass that is generated besides the gasoline will find some productive use, even if all it does is become fertilizer (after it has been irradiated to keep any GM fungi or bacteria from getting into the wild).

    I'm sure if someone were to market their gasoline as "green" or "organic", there would be a segment of the population willing to pay a premium to make use of it. The same segment of the population that buys organic milk, organic produce, and drives their biodiesel Jetta or hybrid Prius to their Sierra Club meetings.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mgbastard (612419) on Wednesday August 15, 2007 @10:13AM (#20236139)

    At 2,000 gallons per acre (presumably per annum), you would need 73 million acres of land to meet these needs. According to the CIA Factbook, the USA has an area of 9,826,630 square kilometres, which works out to 2428213150 acres.

    It may be more relevant to compare that with our current cropland use, to demonstrate how much of a change that would be. See USDA [usda.gov]. We have somewhere around 230Million acres of cropland in use, domestically. So that works out to about 1/3 of our CURRENT harvested cropland use that would need to be diverted to fuel production, assuming all the previous calculations to be somewhat true.

    So that is still feasible. Remembers, those figures are just current use. We can support the use of a lot more of US land than we currently do for agriculture

    Some more recent data, apparently our government doesn't update this but every 5 years: USDA 2002 Ag Census [usda.gov]. Those figures report that we have 938 Million acres currently available in farms. That census also reports we use almost 60 million acres just for grazing livestock. That's awfully close to the 73 million quoted previously. The sky is falling argument of we CANNOT afford the land use or water use fails.

What this country needs is a good five cent microcomputer.

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