15 June 2008

Oily Grail Part II – Bacteria that “shit” petrol.

If the previous item was not enough, yesterday’s Times also carried an article about the development of bacteria that eat waste and excrete crude oil

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, former software executive, “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.” He means bugs or rather the genetic alteration of bacteria so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as wood chips or wheat straw, they excrete crude oil. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of a car. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.

Instead of trying to re engineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made. LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firm’s president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. “How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company?” he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being “prerevenue”.

Mr Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms. They start out as industrial yeast or non pathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA. “Five to seven years ago, that process would have taken months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “Now it can take weeks and cost maybe $20,000.”

Because crude oil is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result. For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the bio fuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the by-product ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant. The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or wood chips in the South.

Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready. The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago. That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale.

“Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, we’ll be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011,” says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.

Another great idea in theory but, as with many other developments, it’s a long way from the test tube to the mega production plant... Again is there sufficient waste material to be found to feed such an enterprise without serious harm to the environment?


James Higham said...

This heading and this post is the reason everyone who comes here knows you're the top blogger you are.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks James. Praise from Caesar himself!

Nunyaa said...

Sounds all space age kinda stuff to me. Wouldn't it be great if it was to happen though.

jams o donnell said...

It sounds like a great idea but there's a big gulf between the small scale and the industrial. Who knows though

elasticwaistbandlady said...

It's a great idea in theory and extremely interesting but then it could also turn into a disastrous B-movie plot come to life in the blink of an eye.

Think about the bugs escaping and crapping oil all over the place. One lit cigarette or accelerant and you'll have fires burning out of control everywhere.

jams o donnell said...

If only Robert Shaw was still alive, he could hunt the killer oil crappers!

Unknown said...

Red Wine drinkers can now wipe that wine off their smile!

Wine Wipes are an innovative new product created especially for red wine drinkers who fall victim to stain left on their teeth and smile from drinking red wine.

Visit us at www.winewipes.com

Mary Ferguson was a 32 year old self professed lover of red wine. Unfortunately for Mary, red wine returned that love in the form of a nasty red wine film on her teeth and mouth. But she never let it bother her.. until the night she met Jack.

Sparks flew as Jack bellied up to the bar and ordered a big bodied bottle of red wine. This was love at first sight. Jack and Mary drank and danced the night away. And then, she did the unforgivable… She smiled. Her once pearly white teeth had morphed into a red stained filthy looking mouth. Jack tried to look away but couldn’t contain the disgust on his face. Mary quickly excused her self to the bathroom and maniacally attempted to scrub the wine off her mouth, but it was to no avail. Mary walked out of the bathroom with stained teeth and a newly chaffed tongue. By the time she returned, Jack had vanished, and left nothing for Mary but the bill… If she had only had a Wine Wipe.

Mary’s dilemma is common tale. Most red wine drinkers fall victim to this social fopah. Whether you call it ‘tannin teeth, malbec mouth, red badge of courage, or wine tattoo’, most red wine drinkers have experienced the unattractive dark film that red wine stain leaves on their smile. They have either excepted purple teeth as part of the experience or begrudgingly switched to Chardonnay… Until Now.

Wine Wipes are an innovative new product that will change the way people look at you while you when you drink red wine. Wine Wipes quickly and easily remove red wine stain with a gentle orange blossom flavor that won’t interfere with the wine tasting experience, making Wine Wipes the perfect pairing to any glass of red wine,

Wine Wipes are manufactured by Borracha LLC, located in San Luis Obispo County, California. Borracha creates innovative products for social drinkers while using a portion of the proceeds to support water projects in the developing world.

Visit us at www.winewipes.com.