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Biotech Power

Start-Up Genetically Modifies a Better Biofuel Bug 124

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-could-go-wrong dept.
Al writes "A tiny cellulose-eating bacterium found a few years ago in the Chesapeake Bay has been genetically modified to help it break down cellulose and convert the results into the sugars needed to make ethanol. Scientists analyzed the organism's genome in 2003 and found that it possessed a combination of enzymes that simultaneously break down the tough cell walls in dead plants and convert the remaining cellulose into sugars. Recently, Zymetis completed its first successful commercial-scale trial using the bug. The company ran the modified microbe through a series of tests in large fermenters and found that it could convert one ton of cellulosic plant fiber into sugar in 72 hours. The microbe's main advantage is its ability to naturally combine two major steps in the ethanol process, which the company says could considerably slash the high costs of producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass like switchgrass, wood chips, and paper pulp. The piece includes a video of the company's CEO discussing the project."
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Start-Up Genetically Modifies a Better Biofuel Bug

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  • Why? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by afidel (530433) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @01:29AM (#27251993)
    Isn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that cellulose based ethanol makes no sense when compared to algae or Jatropha (or similar oil seed plants that can grow on non-arable land) which can be converted to biodiesel? Even if the yield per acre were similar (they're not) the process sure looks to be much more complicated and the MUCH lower energy density of ethanol means you are going to waste a lot more of the harvested energy in transporting the fuel.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well, the article says that they're wanting to localize the production to paper mills and other places where there's a lot of organic waste that they can use to produce it. It's a pretty cool concept, and I wonder if we could perhaps locate such facilities adjacent to landfills and the like.

      At least this way you get rid of a lot of solid waste that would otherwise just be taking up space and rotting.

      • "At least this way you get rid of a lot of solid waste..."

        Yes, but should this be a worry? "Zymetis has genetically modified a rare, cellulose-eating bacterium to break down and convert cellulose into sugars necessary to make ethanol..."

        And: ""It has the ability to break down whole plant material, and it excretes enzymes that break down cellulose,..."

        And: "Hutcheson and his colleagues switched on certain genes to increase the activity of these enzymes, and turned off other genes that controlled inhibitory behaviors of the microbe, such as those that tell it to stop feeding."

        When the bacteria gets loose, will it attack plants everywhere? During evolution, plants selected cellulose because it is structurally strong and can't be destroyed by bacteria.

        Technology Review seems to me to be an advertising, public relations site. It doesn't seem to explore the obvious issues.
        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          When the bacteria gets loose, will it attack plants everywhere? During evolution, plants selected cellulose because it is structurally strong and can't be destroyed by bacteria.

          Technology Review seems to me to be an advertising, public relations site. It doesn't seem to explore the obvious issues.

          It probably wouldn't be much of a problem if it got loose. Competition between bacteria in the environment is incredibly tough, and resources are scarce. By increasing the activity of certain enzymes (over-expressing them so they are always produced) and turning off inhibitory genes the bacteria are always going to spending a stupendous amount of energy making these enzymes regardless of whether or not they get anything out of it. That's a big drag on their fitness.

          Think about it: if constantly expressi

          • by Jurily (900488)

            Think about it: if constantly expressing these enzymes was an evolutionarily viable strategy, these guys wouldn't have had to engineer the bacteria to do it.

            Can we accept this as a general rule? Don't forget: evolution is not done yet. We can also view genetic engineering as evolution's way of speeding up itself.

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward

              We can also view genetic engineering as evolution's way of speeding up itself.

              Can we though? Genetic engineering (especially in this case) is geared around industrially and scientifically useful properties. Evolution is more concerned with survival and propagation. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but they're not inclusive either.

              Yes, maybe bacteria could evolve more active habits of degrading plant material, but to the point they're over-expressing? The company behind this are naturally keeping quiet on exactly how this was done, but many industrially used expression vectors i

              • by Jurily (900488)

                Genetic engineering (especially in this case) is geared around industrially and scientifically useful properties.

                whatcouldpossiblygowrong

                Evolution might not be done yet, but it tends to be a bit more balanced ecologically than engineering.

                Hah. [wikipedia.org] Survival of the human race is not guaranteed until a new balance emerges.

            • by rozz (766975)

              Don't forget: evolution is not done yet.

              Don't forget: evolution is not done ever.

    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dreampod (1093343) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @01:45AM (#27252059)
      It wouldn't serve as a primary source of ethanol, at least if sanity has anything to do with the decision making. Instead it would serve as an alternative disposal method for organic waste that rather than costing money to dispose of, it would instead bring in some revenue. Pulp mills in particular generate a fairly large amount of cellulosic waste this would be ideal for.
      • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by cskrat (921721) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @03:06AM (#27252315)

        From the article, it sounds like this process would also work on yard waste. In places like Portland, OR, a house with a moderate sized yard could easily produce 30-50 Lbs of grass clippings per week during the 9 month growing season. That would likely be enough to keep a conversion facility busy, especially when combined with waste output from the Camas paper plant.

        This looks to be a promising way of disposing of waste material. Even if the efficiency isn't as great as bio-diesel, as long as it produces a net gain it's a good avenue of research.

        • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

          by Joce640k (829181)

          Great idea! Let's make a bacteria that can eat all the plants!!

          The person responsible for this needs to be taken out back for a "talking to".

          • Not a problem (Score:4, Informative)

            by A nonymous Coward (7548) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @09:00AM (#27254241)

            As others have posted, this bug is too inefficient to compete in the wild. It takes so much energy to eat its food (cellulose) that other bacteria would quickly swamp it. Imagine a dog bred to jump instead of walk. All that extra energy would require more hunting to get more food, and the existing wild dogs would quickly knock it out of competition.

          • OMG! Something might eat dead plants... Something biological in nature! The fibers might break down, and release nutrients into the soil! I propose we call this menace... "biodegradation". Materials that can be broken down and destroyed by these new biological menaces could be said to be "biodegradable".

        • by riverat1 (1048260)

          And how about all that straw from the grass seed industry that they burn every summer here in Oregon?

    • Isn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that cellulose based ethanol makes no sense when compared to algae or Jatropha (or similar oil seed plants that can grow on non-arable land) which can be converted to biodiesel?

      Seems like this could have two advantages

      1. ANY type of plant. Like grass. Seems like that if the conversion from cellulose to ethanol was efficient enough, there would be much better plants or trees to use than Jatropha. Maybe Jatropha was the best option when we were chemically converting cellulose or doing it less efficiently?

      2. Maybe we could recycle used paper into fuel?

      And then there would be an reason to use both: you can't harvest oil from the entire plant of jatropha, maybe you could grow it, ha

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by cjanota (936004)

        2. Maybe we could recycle used paper into fuel?

        All you need for that is a match.

      • by afidel (530433)
        ANY type of plant. Like grass. Seems like that if the conversion from cellulose to ethanol was efficient enough, there would be much better plants or trees to use than Jatropha. Maybe Jatropha was the best option when we were chemically converting cellulose or doing it less efficiently?

        That's the point, Jatropha isn't a cellulose based method, it's an oil seed and it's about 40% oil by weight. I guess you could use this method on the fiberous parts of the plant but then you would deplete the soil that muc
        • by AndersOSU (873247)

          The seed is 40% oil by weight. Most of the rest of the plant is cellulose.

        • by Dan Ost (415913)

          You don't need to grow new Jatropha plants each year. The same plant will produce nuts every year. That's part of why it's so cheap to grow...plant once, harvest many times.

    • by Anenome (1250374) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @02:38AM (#27252237)

      Algae bio-diesel is a hot topic. You convert sunlight, water and waste-products into bio-diesel, and the biggest problem they've had so far is the algae reproducing too much! The approach of using an organism like algae to produce renewable energy is likely to work and be far cheaper than any tech we would have to manufacture for a long, long time. Algae biochemistry is just far more advanced in terms of its micro-mechanical capability than we are, and it is its own factory; reproducing without abandon.

      So what's holding back algae from solving the energy problems of the world?
      - One, it's early in development still, although there are two or three notable research plants in the U.S. and England connected to major universities working on it currently.
      - Two, the key to making it economical is to raise the ratio of bio-diesel produced to biomass of the algae, basically the efficiency of output compared to the inputs.

      Right now they get something like 10-20% efficiency. If they could up that significantly to say 80-90% then it's more economical than even gasoline. Can they do this? They think so:

      They've got a concept which involves pumping human waste into the algae water, along with straight carbon-dioxide atmospheres, and pumping in carbon-dioxide black-smoke through the water, smoke harvested from coal-burning plants (making the Greens even happier) which actually scrubs the air clean(er) as a result. With that they think they can get the efficiency up there. So it actually helps us deal with other environmental problems on the side.

      Now, where the actual tech comes in will be breeding new strains and adding and subtracting genes. Right now they've mainly bred strains the old fashioned way, without any genetic splicing. Once the splicing does occur, and the world's library of genetic techniques and effects can be brought to bear we may have something, perhaps an oil replacement, a true oil replacement. They'll begin dropping in genes, and playing with the best traits of various strains to create a super-algae. And then, it'll be "bye-bye oil."

      But, I'll throw this final monkey wrench in the whole thing: say we did create a breakthrough tech that resulted in oil losing its price advantage, so much that within 5-10 years all gasoline refining could stop and the world could survive on bio-diesel and ethanol, all at cheaper prices than oil allowed - what do you think that would do to the Middle-east?

      I think the Arab countries which rely on oil money for basically everything would realize the jig is up, their income is gonna dry up fast, and many of those countries would go completely ape-shit. They'd probably attack Israel, us too perhaps, before their wealth and power began to fade. Without oil money that region is just the armpit of the world, many regions could be called 4th world countries ;P And without oil money their influence would soon wane, and the ability of radical elements to commit global acts of terror would wane just as quickly.

      So, let's indeed replace oil ASAP with something like algae-produced bio-diesel, or any similar tech that gets us off oil at a cheaper price than oil, and that will not only keep a lot more wealth in the US, it is ultimately the only way to end global terrorism as a major problem and concern in the world.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by fractoid (1076465)

        But, I'll throw this final monkey wrench in the whole thing: say we did create a breakthrough tech that resulted in oil losing its price advantage, so much that within 5-10 years all gasoline refining could stop and the world could survive on bio-diesel and ethanol, all at cheaper prices than oil allowed - what do you think that would do to the Middle-east?

        Then the primary way to get spodloads of money would be "start a successful business, or get lucky/skillful investing on the stock market", instead of being "just happen to have half the world's oil reserves under your ancestral homeland". At least that way people would generally require some degree of rational thought to get stupidly rich. Without their current oil-money-backed funding, militant extremists would have a much harder time forming cells and carrying out attacks.

        As for the algae, I concur. Gr

        • It's nothing like grey goo, because grey goo is formed by machines, and machines don't die.

          • by TheLink (130905)
            Try convincing my sister's car.

            It's not actually dead yet, but it's not far from "pining for the fjords" (not the Fords).

            On the bright side, it isn't making noises about brains.
        • by jamstar7 (694492)
          I'd think that hydrocarbons (petrochemicals) would still be useful for things like plastic feedstocks, some fertilizers (until we figure out a cheap way to not need them anymore), even as possible directly-converted foods, recycleable as needed. There will always be applications for petrochemicals, the hot setup is to figure out how to make them directly recycleable instead of burning them off in a car's engine.
      • by DamienRBlack (1165691) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @04:51AM (#27252819)

        The discrepancy between how accurate your account on algae is and how ill-considered your analysis of Arabs is, is truly amazing.

        Why would you assume that just because the Arab nations are going to run out of money they are going to blatheringly insane? Would you assume that if the U.S. were running out of money we'd go ape-shit? No, you wouldn't. So your assumption shows a racist bias that is both unfounded and disgusting.

        For your information, most Arab countries are investing their oil money into both business and infrastructure. They are looking for ways to create a solid, long-lasting presence in business and finance. To think that the wealth will dry up just goes to show that you don't understand the scale of the money being generated. The wealth of countries like Saudi Arabia are far, far beyond critical mass, and will keep growing with or without oil. Saudi Arabia has more than 7 trillion dollars invested in U.S. companies, and they aren't just investing the America. The Saudi surplus is about as large as our deficit, and they only have 1/10th the number of people. As you can imagine, that is enough to do a lot of impressive things. These task are what these Arab nations are going to be focusing on, not lashing out like cornered animals.

        Take your paranoid xenophobia and desire to bankrupt entire cultures to some other forum. We don't want you here. For the record, equating Arab nations to terrorists is equivalent to equating the U.S. to the KKK. How stupid would this sentiment sound: Well, the American economy tanking is ultimately the only way to end global racism (the KKK) as a major problem and concern in the world. It would sound pretty damn stupid wouldn't it? Well Mr. Anenome, that is exactly how silly you sound to people who don't view the world through spectacles of discrimination.

        • by Anenome (1250374) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @06:05AM (#27253161)

          Well, I think you're just being over-emotional about the issue because you're emotionally invested. I am not emotionally invested, nor am I a racist.

          I am however a futurist, and like to look at likely scenarios of the future. All I've said is that if the oil tap looks like it's going to run dry that this will destabilize the middle-east further. When the middle-east gets destabilized, generally a few things happen: 1) someone tries to attack Israel. 2) Terrorism increases globally. If you'd like to refute either of those points using history, I'd love to laugh at the attempt.

          Iran, for instance, sells a lot of oil right now, it finances their country in large measure. Things are fine for Iran economically, in general, yet they still talk, weekly, about nuking Israel. And you're trying to tell us that that behavior wouldn't get worse if it looked like Iran couldn't afford to spend so much on their military anymore? You are probably as economically illiterate as so many are, I suppose I cannot hold it against you. It's a modern tragedy.

          As for these countries having tons of money, you're way, way off. Saudi Arabia is nearly bankrupt. They have borrowed a fuck-ton of money, last time I checked, and I don't think that's changed since then, I can't imagine how it could have. If you want to say that the various royal families have gigantic gobs of money, sure, you got me there. That doesn't mean much, however, it's all in private hands. An economy needs a middle-class. What's your plan to convince the Saudi Royal family, and others like them around the world, virtual despots, to share the wealth? Kuwait is so oil-dependent that as of '91 they were paying a gigantic yearly salary of $80,000 to each resident of the country, many other countries do similar, Venenzuela was trying to set something up like that too (foolishly) until the price of oil floored again. You think Kuwait wouldn't be economically devastated by oil being replaced? You're fooling yourself.

          If the oil-tap gets turned off that would result in, literally, trillions of dollars per year no longer flowing into the middle-east. Do you really mean to say that that wouldn't have an effect on the middle-eastern economy? You're fooling yourself. The middle-eastern economy is currently dependent on that cash-flow and does not have the economic infrastructure in place to makeup a shortfall that could drop to zero within 5-10 years - which is exactly what Algae biodiesel could achieve. If WWIII broke out, and oil reserves were cut-off, that could result in a massive switch to biodiesel even faster on our part. When the switchover happens, at the least, the middle-east would experience a depression as long as 15-30 years in duration while it built up other avenues of economic production, and that assumes they don't go to war in that time period.

          I have no desire to see this happen, I wish the people of the middle-east well, by and large they are a decent people with extremists messing it up for everyone, just like everywhere else. But we also have to deal with the reality of the situation. You're anger just shows you're not prepared to look at things with that level of detachment.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by DamienRBlack (1165691)

            It is possible that you have a point. It is possible that the decrease in oil flow will lead to destabilization in the Middle East. That isn't really my concern though. My concern is the tone you choose to set. In general, your Arab sentiment can be boiled down to: the enemy will act in ways we wouldn't expect ourselves to act, fear them. Are you worried that the U.S.'s economic decline may cause us to lash out at an Arab country as we have a history of doing? No, you aren't. Your willingness to assume that

            • ... will lead to destabilization in the Middle East

              In order to destabilize something doesn't it have to be stable to start with?

            • I highly doubt that the oil tap will be turned off completely. We might not use it for power once we find an alternative, but think of all the other things that we do with oil - plastics, polymers, organic chemicals, etc.
          • by AndersOSU (873247)

            I am however a futurist

            So you make stuff up?

            if the oil tap looks like it's going to run dry that this will destabilize the middle-east further

            Ok, that's not much of a strech.

            When the middle-east gets destabilized, generally a few things happen: 1) someone tries to attack Israel. 2) Terrorism increases globally.

            Now there's a leap. Ok, when a country becomes unstable most of the time it denigrates into internal strife. Occasionally, a strong man assumes control, sometimes this results in military campaigns.

          • by mqduck (232646)

            You just completely ignored the thrust of the post you're replying to. The point is, this assumption that Arab countries would go invading Israel, for no reason, because their economy is dying is blatantly racist, and that "armpit of the world" crap makes it clear (they're not even the worst-off region, if that's what you're going by).

            There's imperialism (which is generally what invading another country is all about) and then there's this bullshit idea about Arabs being crazy, murderous zealots who hate Jew

          • by Templaris (754690)
            Even if bio fuels were to achieve that 80-90 percent efficiency, there are plenty of other uses for oil. The timescale for bio fuel to replace gasoline is probably longer than 5-10 years. However, assume that might be the case somehow. The price of oil would go down, because supply would outstrip demand, and oil would become more competitive again. Companies would look to use oil more for plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and all the other weird and common stuff we never think that oil is used for on a
        • by Anenome (1250374)

          Once upon a time, the Greek Athenians went to all the Greek City States and said, "Lets band together against our enemies for mutual survival against the Persians."

          All the city-states agreed and the Greek world became one under the Athenians. To this end they selected the Spartans, the warlike ones, as the soldiers, etc., but the Athenians headed it up and were the naval power of the time. Everyone paid money to this central state to finance arms, boats, and soldiers.

          Years went by and the threat was defeate

        • by stdarg (456557)

          The ultra wealthy Saudis can just as easily manage their foreign investments from some place comfortable like Switzerland. I'm sure you know the royal family in Saudi Arabia is not exactly well-loved, but when your source of wealth is tied to the ground you are too. If their tight control over the population is no longer necessary (because they're not around) things would destabilize quickly.

        • Would you assume that if the U.S. were running out of money we'd go ape-shit?

          We'll find out soon enough.

        • by rozz (766975)

          Would you assume that if the U.S. were running out of money we'd go ape-shit?

          YES. As a matter of fact a lot of you already did. Just open the tv sometime.

          Actually, I do not disagree with your point; it is a 100% valid one but it is just one of the multiple possibilities; grandparent's point is another one; and so on
          And your comparison truly sucks.

          • by afidel (530433)
            Actually we are out of money because we went and launched our second offensive war in the countries history, not the other way around.
      • Algae growth requires lots of sun. Libya is all about sun. Saudi Arabia is nearly the same. In fact, the whole region is pretty much sun, sun, sun, wonderful sun!

        sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sandstorms, and sun

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anenome (1250374)

          Yes, but when shipping becomes the largest cost of a product, distant producers cannot compete in price with local producers. This is, for instance, why beer companies have trouble competing on a national scale, and why (I think it was) Anheiser-Busch was caught freeze-drying, shipping 'beer powder' and then re-hydrating their beer across country. Oil is competitive because it can't be produced in America. But, algae-produced biodiesel can essentially be made anywhere, and therefore will be, and shipping lo

          • Keep in mind also, though, that N America imports a *lot* of food products. Last time I heard, the USA wouldn't be able to sustain it's own population with the domestic supplies of food.

            That being so, what's the chance that they'd be able to make enough biofuel plants to power the entire country in a reasonable amount of time? Seems like a good project for the Arabic regions, as they're no doubt got a lot of the resources (money, labor, and sun) to do it.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by afidel (530433)
              You're on serious crack, NA is a net exporter of food by a LARGE amount. The great plains are the worlds bread basket and California and Mexico produce vast quantities of fruits and vegetables. The only thing we import in any great quantity is fruits and vegetables from central America during the winter months as even the growing areas in Mexico are far enough north to have significant dropoff in productivity then.
              • California won't be growing fruit for long. We build condos on the best farmland.

                FYI, San Jose was once prime apricot land.

                • by Anenome (1250374)

                  More ignorance of economics?

                  Land is sold to the highest bidder. The highest bidder is the highest bidder because he believes the use he will put that land to is what society needs the most, he judges this by the price that use will bring in the market.

                  If they're building condos over apricot land, it's because society needs condos more than apricots, because that land is more useful as living space than as growing space.

                  • by r00t (33219)

                    If you have any clue about economics, you know that we do things based on wants (emotion) rather than needs. You also know about externalities, the time value of money, time-based discounting of value, the tragedy of the commons, and so on.

                    For example, suppose that human-caused climate change is scientifically valid. Economics doesn't prevent us from burning coal and oil like crazy, even if that ultimately kills us all. By your logic, society needs the luxury of burning coal and oil more than it needs a sur

      • by mac1235 (962716)
        No. Oil will always be useful for plastics and other chemicals
        • by stdarg (456557)

          But we can reduce our consumption for plastics and other chemicals. Last time I needed some more coat hangers, I bought some at Walmart that claim to be made from corn rather than plastic. They were a little more expensive but they are also stiffer and (I feel) easier to use with large shirts or sweaters. They're great.

          • by mac1235 (962716)
            As long as we are not using all our corn to make ethanol....
            • If you can make ethanol from cellulose, which corn cobs, corn husks, and corn stalks are mostly made of, the corn kernels (which aren't a very good source of sugar anyway compared to sugar cane) could easily be used for food even as the rest of the plant was used for ethanol.

      • by Joce640k (829181)

        The middle east has an awful lot of empty space and sunlight - ideal for algae farms.

        Yeah, I wonder what they could do to survive if algae farms become a primary source of energy.

      • by Xest (935314)

        Pakistan is the centre of global terrorism but it's not based on oil wealth instead on opium profits and such. I don't think we'd see an end to global terrorism even if the middle east was whiped off the earth tommorrow.

        In reality, the middle east would probably just become a lot more like Africa - a few prosperous big cities but a lot more poor areas that breed war and hate which would still include Islamic extremism (much like in areas of Somalia).

        But even without biofuels the shift is going to happen any

        • by stdarg (456557)

          I think you're underestimating the funding pumped into Pakistan by Saudi Arabia. They are primarily responsible for the whole wahabi movement, which has played a large role in the radicalization of Pakistani cultures.

      • From what I've seen in many cases, while there is a lot of waste in the middle-east (as comes anywhere when you have unbelievable amounts of cash), a lot also goes into infrastructure and making the country more livable. Completely current out petroleum products isn't going to happy anyhow, but we can cut it out of vehicles and fuels, while they'll still be able to sell the product for different uses such as plastics etc.

      • You need to consider the number of gasoline engines that would need to be replaced with diesel engines. All that milled metal isn't being produced without energy inputs. Even recycling a gasoline engine to make a diesel one will take energy.

        Ethanol burns in gasoline engines, and only minor tweaks are needed to secure the gaskets (rubber and alcohol don't mix) and to adjust the mixture with air (which can be done in the computer on many models, and sometimes requires a new air or fuel rate sensor or such).

    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday March 19, 2009 @03:04AM (#27252305) Homepage

      Isn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that cellulose based ethanol makes no sense when compared to algae or Jatropha (or similar oil seed plants that can grow on non-arable land) which can be converted to biodiesel?

      The idea isn't to grow crops for direct fermentation - but to convert plant (cellulose) waste that isn't used for other purposes. (Like animal feed.)

      • by KillerBob (217953)

        Informative, and insightful too. Albeit, an insight I'm surprised nobody else seems to be making.

        There's waste cellulose produced everywhere. Pulp & paper industries, lumber, farming... even crops grown for direct fermentation like corn produce waste cellulose that isn't used in the fermentation process (there isn't a lot of sugar in the silk & husks).

        This isn't a replacement, it's a supplement. And it's one that can be used in direct conjunction with existing methods for producing biofuel, too... a

    • Isn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that cellulose based ethanol makes no sense when compared to algae or Jatropha (or similar oil seed plants that can grow on non-arable land) which can be converted to biodiesel? Even if the yield per acre were similar (they're not) the process sure looks to be much more complicated and the MUCH lower energy density of ethanol means you are going to waste a lot more of the harvested energy in transporting the fuel.

      On the other hand, cellulose-producing plants can be found everywhere. Instead of having huge plants and transporting fuel long distances we could potentially have a small plant for each and every neighborhood. If we can use pretty much anything with enough cellulose as raw material the energy density is not necessarily a huge issue.

    • ...Because you can't handle the truth, that's why! (Jack Nicolson mode off)

      (Seriously) Biodiesel is an ester, which means it has a lipid (oily) part and an alcohol part. The algae or jatropha supply the lipid, the alcohol is still required.

      Ask anyone who has made their own biodiesel - although they use old french-fry oil, they are also mixing it with methanol (if you want to do the reaction at room temp, the ethanol reaction requires heat) and lye.

    • so the feed stream of a mature algae biodiesel production facility might be channeled to bugs like this one. To solve our energy problem let's engage all the of life's kingdoms. algae(biodiesel) --> bacteria(sugar) --> yeast(ethanol) ---537
    • Well, all the corn growers who grow corn for food that gets bought for inefficient production of ethanol for fuel can now sell the corn for food and the stalks for ethanol. The stalks tend to just get plowed under.

      How much metal are you willing to dig ore for, smelt, pour into blocks, cut, and transport to replace millions of gasoline engines with diesel ones? Ethanol burns in gasoline engines, and very minor tweaks are required to make a gasoline-powered car's gaskets and computer ready for it to be used w

  • I wonder... (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by jd (1658)

    Isn't it funny that a bay right next door to agencies and military groups that want to dispose of "evidence" happens to be chock full of bugs that, well, dispose of "evidence"...

  • A not-insignificant number of Americans use wood for heat, and pay for gasoline. I'm sure many more Canadians and Europeans do as well. I know of two households that are on the grid, and still use a wood stove as their primary heat source. I wonder whether this could be made small enough to convince them to get a heat pump and an ethanol-fueled vehicle.

    In 1993, 3.1 million homes used wood for heat; the number dropped to 2 million in 2001 [nytimes.com]

    • A not-insignificant number of Americans use wood for heat, and pay for gasoline. I'm sure many more Canadians and Europeans do as well. I know of two households that are on the grid, and still use a wood stove as their primary heat source. I wonder whether this could be made small enough to convince them to get a heat pump and an ethanol-fueled vehicle.

      In 1993, 3.1 million homes used wood for heat; the number dropped to 2 million in 2001 [nytimes.com]

      To what point and purpose? I'm all for heat pumps, but what is wrong with using firewood for heat? It's (mostly) carbon neutral, and uses a resource that isn't useful for much else. Well, at least until this "bug" (I presume it's a bacteria) can convert it into fuel.

      • Given the relative price difference between electricity and liquid fuels, it would make sense to produce liquid fuels from wood when possible, and use electricity for heat.

        In fact, even without the heat pump, it would likely be economical to replace wood stoves with a small combined fermentation vessel and electric still, using the waste heat for home heating.

      • ...what is wrong with using firewood for heat? ...

        It's called smoke. it's not very nice to breath.
      • by maxume (22995)

        Wood heat is filthy and a lot of work.

        Those end up being pretty good reasons when easier, cleaner (at least in the house/yard) alternatives are price competitive. Outdoor burners and gasification burners improve the situation, but they don't fix it.

        • Pellet hopper boilers are pretty convenient and fairly clean. Many of them can run off of LP or natural gas between fillings with pellets, too.

  • When the new, proven thermal reactors can convert almost any organics -- including cellulose waste -- directly to biodiesel much more efficiently? Much more energy density than ethanol, with less energy input, and almost none of the other disadvantages.
    • I doubt any of them are "much more efficient". Pyrolysis reactors operate at much higher temperatures than the 180 degrees Fahrenheit required to distill ethanol.

      Do you have a particular process in mind? Any efficiency figures?

      • No, I was in fact thinking of a proprietary process, which does indeed work, but apparently they have now decided to concentrate on lipids for the sake of further efficiency. However, the process was proven with proteins and cellulosic bases as well.
    • I agree that biodiesel has more energy density than ethanol.

      Perhaps you are thinking of the McGyan Process [evercatfuels.com] that continuously converts various lipid feedstocks such as old cooking oil, tallow, or algae into biodiesel. The process also requires alcohol as a feedstock. It does not process cellulose waste.

      Most ethanol to cellulose processes require the cellulose to be first broken down by acid. There are also catalysts for converting cellulose under development in the lab, but the wood waste, switch gras
  • to the wild ? what happens if they prove too successful in the wild ?

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      to the wild ? what happens if they prove too successful in the wild ?

      Only rich people will be able to stay sober, as tap water is replaced by ethanol.

    • by Muad'Dave (255648)

      what happens if they prove too successful in the wild ?

      The whole world will turn into Willy Wonka's Everything is eat-able land [livingincinema.com], we'll all have a massive sugar rush, then die from starvation.

    • by stdarg (456557)

      I've always heard that bacteria engineered for this sort of thing can only do it at the expense of other functions that would make them competitive. If these bacteria escaped they would probably be eaten by tougher bacteria.

      • by unity100 (970058)

        what if they mutate ?

        • What if the natural competitive ones mutate to eat anything?

        • Then they can maintain the status quo by behaving like any other bacteria, which means we can ignore them.

          Bacteria responsible for synthesizing something that costs a lot of energy typically have a plan for shutting it off when they don't need it. I remember seeing on a flow chart for the nitrogen cycle, there was one brach of it that can go either forward or backward, depending on the environment's carbon to nitrogen ratio.

          We can anthropomorphize the situation to produce an analogy: America is scared tha

          • by unity100 (970058)

            this is a modified bacteria. its not natural. they may not shut something off because they dont need it.

            • They may be modified but what makes you think that this specific trait was removed? Even if it was, it doesn't mean mean they wouldn't pick it up in the wild. Bacteria can pick up new DNA in all sorts of ways (read about plasmids).

              And assuming that they lack this trait, and pretending they can't acquire it in the wild, the answer to your question should be obvious: They would get their asses handed to them by their competition.

    • by mauthbaux (652274)
      The chance of it surviving in the wild is a fairly remote possibility. All the extra genes and modified genes create an extra metabolic payload that puts this strain at a disadvantage compared to the wild strains. It is possible that the sugars liberated by these extra enzymes may be enough to overcome the difference, but it's unlikely. Additionally, (and I haven't RTFA) normally when genes are modified/added to an organism, the vector that carries them also carries the genetic switch to turn certain genes
      • The bacterium can't attack live plants. Mauthbaux made good points about the fact that genetically engineered bacteria are usually made dependent on some factor they won't get in the wild, precisely to deal with the problem of escapes. The TR article does not mentionwhether this was done, however.

        The point that it only attacks dead plants doesn't mean we're home free. Lots of people live inside dead plants (wood), so there could still be a huge problem if this thing did a sci-fi (or should I say SyF
  • This is getting tedious, jumping on, then off, then on ,
    then off.....I hope we all make our minds up, my legs are getting tired.

  • A high compression engine to run E100.
  • Goodbye Mr. Fusion, Hello Mr. Biodiesel!

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