Lab makes renewable diesel fuel
from E. coli poop
Aug 13, 2008 - cnn.com
|A California lab has developed
genetically altered bacteria that eat sugars
and excrete a form of diesel oil.
Fossil fuels that keep our planet running -- oil,
natural gas and coal -- were created from the decomposition
of plants, plankton and other organic material over
millions of years.
Today, scientists all over the globe are working
to create fuels with the same properties but without
that pesky 100 million-year wait. And "renewable
petroleum" is now a reality, on a small scale, in
The biotech company LS9 Inc. is using single-celled
bacteria to create an oil equivalent. These petroleum
"production facilities" are so small, you can see
them only under a microscope.
"We started in my garage two years ago, and we're
producing barrels today, so things are moving pretty
quickly," said biochemist Stephen del Cardayre,
LS9 vice president of research and development.
How does it work? A special type of genetically
altered bacteria are fed plant material: basically,
any type of sugar. They digest it and excrete the
equivalent of diesel fuel.
Humans have used bacteria and yeast for centuries
to do similar work, creating beer, moonshine and,
more recently, ethanol. But scientists' recent strides
in genetic engineering now allow them to control
the end product.
Watch the fuel-making process at work
"So these are bacteria that have been engineered
to produce oil," del Cardayre said. "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." Don't Miss *
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The company is focusing on diesel fuel, but the
microbes can be "programmed" to make gasoline or
The bacteria used are a harmless form of E. coli.
And the feedstock, or food for the microbes, can
be any type of agricultural product, from sugar
cane to waste such as wheat straw and wood chips.
Choosing plants with no food value sidesteps one
of the biggest criticisms of another synthetic fuel,
corn ethanol, because critics say that corn should
be used as food, not fuel.
It takes a lot of microbe poop to fill a gas tank,
however. Biofuel experts say that processes like
those used at LS9 are scientifically viable but
that there's still a long way to go before they
can address global energy needs.
"Scalability is really the critical issue," said
Robert McCormick, principal engineer at the U.S.
Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy
Lab in Colorado. "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."
But del Cardayre says his product has other benefits
over traditional fossil fuels.
"What we've done is make the same molecules from
renewable sources, so that it can go into the existing
infrastructure, be made domestically and in an environmentally
friendly way. That's the goal," he said.
The LS9 product does not have the cancer-causing
benzene that is in other fossil fuels and has far
less sulfur, he said. LS9 President Bob Walsh says
that using existing petroleum pipelines is crucial.
Ethanol, for example, requires its own distribution
system because it can corrode oil pipelines.
"You can't put ethanol in a pipeline, [and] even
your car needs some adjustments to it; whereas the
product we're making is going into the existing
system, and that's a big difference," he said.
LS9 expects to be in large-scale commercial production
in three or four years. But del Cardayre is the
first to admit that microscopic oil fields are not
a silver bullet for the world's energy woes.
"I doubt we're going to completely eliminate our
dependence on oil, but we'll certainly be able to
supplement the amount of oil we need in the short
term," he said.
Although energy researchers are spending tens of
millions of dollars in venture capital, McCormick
believes that "just making more" is not enough.
"I think that the answer to reducing our petroleum-import
problem and reducing the carbon emissions from transportation
is really threefold," he said. "It involves replacement
fuels like biofuels, it involves using much more
efficient vehicles than we use today, and it involves
One thing that McCormick and del Cardayre agree
on is that energy research is a great place to be
these days if you are a scientist.
"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," del Cardayre
"Honestly, I couldn't think of a more exciting
thing to work on as a scientist or technologist
right now," said McCormick, a chemical engineer.
"Part of the excitement comes from the fact that
this is such a complex problem, it can't be solved
by a farmer or an ag expert, and it can't be solved
by a chemical engineer or a chemist.
"We all have to pool our various talents and training
and try to come up with a whole new system of producing
energy," he said. "And the current energy price
environment has made literally everyone interested
in replacements for petroleum."