Genetically Modified Bugs Crap Petrol

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“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “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. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. 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.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer 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”.

Inside LS9’s cluttered laboratory – funded by $20 million of start-up capital from investors including Vinod Khosla, the Indian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Micro-systems – Mr Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic 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 (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) 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 biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct 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 woodchips 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.

Are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? “It’s not the same as with food,” Mr Pal says. “We’re putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When we’re done with them, they’re destroyed.”

Besides, he says, there is greater good being served. “I have two children, and climate change is something that they are going to face. The energy crisis is something that they are going to face. We have a collective responsibility to do this.”
Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article4133668.ece?
 
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wow so essentially gas prices would be slashed in half. That's pretty cool. Very nice find.
 
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And here comes Peta, "Give these bugs human rights! Stop extracting them for oil! RHEEEE"

Very ****ing awesome.
 
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that is truly an awesome discovery.
 
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Thats an amazing find, I wonder if at some point we could own our own bugs, and make our own oil? I mean I know it sounds kinda crazy, but imagine in the future the bugs are tiny, and probably don't take up too much food or space, so breeding them for oil wouldn't be too hard.
 
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Thats an amazing find, I wonder if at some point we could own our own bugs, and make our own oil? I mean I know it sounds kinda crazy, but imagine in the future the bugs are tiny, and probably don't take up too much food or space, so breeding them for oil wouldn't be too hard.
I'm guessing the makers will probably, or already have, patented the genetic code for these bacteria. You could I suppose, but you'd probably have a fermentation tank in your basement that produced maybe a full tank of gas in a couple months.

Then again, this is petrol, crude oil, not refined gasoline. It'd cost a lot for maintenance and making the stuff useable. Nothing is REALLY free. This is a great breakthrough because formerly we could only FIND oil, and can now process it, but even though we can generate it now, I'm sure it's pretty difficult and takes a significant cost.

I'd leave it to the developers to handle this. No doubt that gas companies will do their damndest to help fund this project, because it could keep their business alive almost indefinitely if the process is perfected.
 
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The next step is to create a living colony of these bugs inside the car, with a mini-refinery. So your gas tank refills itself! All the bugs need are sunshine. Sound good? :eek:
 
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Alea, write them a letter with those instructions. You might be offered a job.
 
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I highly doubt that seeing as the gasoline companies are funding this so people go to their gas stations. If a car refilled iteself, then the gasoline companies have no reason to fund this. Nice idea though.
 
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You realize she was joking, right? At least I think she was.
 
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I'm glad they are using waste instead of actual food, as the world can't sustain any more people as it is.
However wastes are already used for other stuff aswell, so there is only that much that can be used for eventually oil production.

it's a nice little thing, but besides pissing off some religious nuts, I don't see it becoming anything major anytime soon.

However it might be a building stone for something bigger!
 
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Does anyone else get the feeling that this might end up being a Starship Troppers moment?
 

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I don't like this. I want to get humanity off of gasoline, not give humanity a potentially unlimited source of it.
 
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I don't like this. I want to get humanity off of gasoline, not give humanity a potentially unlimited source of it.
This is FAR from being unlimited ;)
but yeah, H20 cars please!
 
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I'm glad they are using waste instead of actual food, as the world can't sustain any more people as it is.
However wastes are already used for other stuff aswell, so there is only that much that can be used for eventually oil production.

it's a nice little thing, but besides pissing off some religious nuts, I don't see it becoming anything major anytime soon.

However it might be a building stone for something bigger!
This is not true. Farming techniques have become much more proficient; today, we can sustain a person with about 100 times less land than 100 years ago; even using modern techniques and not factoring in any improvements in the future through genetic manipulation/etc, the planet is capable of supporting a much, much higher population than currently.

When you hear people talking about "overpopulation," they're referring to population density in places like China and India, which are insane. But the majority of the world, including the US, is very sparsely populated.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Population_density.png

In most of the western world, there's so much food that obesity, not starvation, is the problem. Why are poor countries, then, unable to grow enough food? It's not because they don't have the proper land for it--it's because their political environments are too radical, unstable to either develop or attract an advanced agricultural industry of their own.

Most estimates project the population will continue to grow rapidly for the predictable future. Go too far out and you can't accurately predict the development of breakthrough technologies, epidemic diseases, etc.
 
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In most of the western world, there's so much food that obesity, not starvation, is the problem. Why are poor countries, then, unable to grow enough food? It's not because they don't have the proper land for it--it's because their political environments are too radical, unstable to either develop or attract an advanced agricultural industry of their own.
Someone told me it's because they used to be able to farm land, but eventually America started saying, "Oh lets give them food they're poor" and once they realized they can get free food, why work hard in farming? So they stopped and started receiving free food :eek:
 
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I'm glad they are using waste instead of actual food, as the world can't sustain any more people as it is.
However wastes are already used for other stuff aswell, so there is only that much that can be used for eventually oil production.

it's a nice little thing, but besides pissing off some religious nuts, I don't see it becoming anything major anytime soon.

However it might be a building stone for something bigger!
There is plenty of nuclear waste left, give them some of it.
 

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