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Earth Science

Producing Gasoline With Metabolically-Engineered Microorganisms 233

An anonymous reader writes "For many decades, we have been relying on fossil resources to produce liquid fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and many industrial and consumer chemicals for daily use. However, increasing strains on natural resources as well as environmental issues including global warming have triggered a strong interest in developing sustainable ways to obtain fuels and chemicals. A Korean research team led by Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) reported, for the first time, the development of a novel strategy for microbial gasoline production through metabolic engineering of E. coli."
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Producing Gasoline With Metabolically-Engineered Microorganisms

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  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday September 30, 2013 @11:52AM (#44992707) Homepage

    My poop already comes out black and tarry. Turning it into crude oil is the next logical step.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can you imagine if an invasive form of e.coli that produces large amounts of alkanes displaced e.coli normally occupying the lower bowels? Farts would become much more entertaining!

    Bucket seats could take on a new meaning as well...

  • So what? (Score:5, Informative)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday September 30, 2013 @12:10PM (#44992943) Homepage Journal

    We can already make Butanol, a 1:1 replacement for gasoline, via the ABE process. The feedstock is any organic material. But we can't actually buy any, because Gevo and Butamax (a holding company owned by BP and Dupont) are fighting over the patents — which should have failed the test for obviousness.

    Why would this process wind up any different?

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      It might not, but we only have to wait 20 years for this to sort itself out. Just be glad patents are not authors life + damn near infinity compared to human lifespan.

    • The ABE process using clostridia of various sorts has been used since 1916. My understanding was not that the process was patented, but that it wasn't particularly cost-effective given current gas and oil prices. Have there been new developments that Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] doesn't know about?
      • Re:So what? (Score:4, Informative)

        by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday September 30, 2013 @01:01PM (#44993531) Homepage Journal

        Putting the gene into an organism that can survive in a range of environments which make the process commercially viable was researched at a public university and is patented by Butamax. Apparently Gevo also has some relevant patent so they have something to fight about.

        • Ah. That would explain it. One more case of patents doing the exact opposite of promoting the common good. :(
          • Classic case of The Tragedy of the Anticommons [wikipedia.org].

            • Thanks for the link. I've read Hardin's work but wasn't aware of the counterpoint article with the clever name. I'm not sure that the formal Tragedy of the Anticommons argument presented is sufficient to explain all possible failures of capitalism, so that it is not clear that "successful capitalism" is its inverse as suggested in the wikipedia article -- monopoly is a more or less independent failure mode brought about by e.g. absurdly long copyrights even when the copyright is held by a single individua

    • Maybe the patents won't get bought out by an oil company this time...unlike automotive nimh batteries and butanol. We gotta keep trying until something gets through.

  • And the volume expected from this process when it goes into widespread production, is what percentage of the world's consumption? I mean, is this viable in sufficient quantities, or is it another "coffee grounds into fuel" type deal? (See a slashdot article a couple years back.)

    Although, mind you, this may appeal to survivalists. You may not be able to create enough gasoline for the entire countryside, but you might be able to eck out enough for a family.

    • Coffee grounds are better fed to red worms and used as highly enriched soil to grow plants in.

    • Or this becomes just one of many fuels we can use - tailored the specific job requirements. We don't *need* gasoline for daily trips around town. It is needed for things like military and other things where you don't have a corner station to fill up with.

      Assuming this can scale to even 5%, that's a huge amount to put towards things that do actually need the energy density and quick refuel times.
      • Or this becomes just one of many fuels we can use - tailored the specific job requirements. We don't *need* gasoline for daily trips around town. It is needed for things like military and other things where you don't have a corner station to fill up with.

        Assuming this can scale to even 5%, that's a huge amount to put towards things that do actually need the energy density and quick refuel times.

        I guess I could agree with that, but I suspect it won't ramp up anywhere near that high. We'll see.

  • Although growing gasoline in a factory like facility certainly beats ripping up the world to have the fuel available it really does have a hidden curse. The idea is to get off of fuels like gasoline entirely and this could perpetuate the use of gasoline. I would prefer the research money be spent on batteries than on producing gasoline.

    • Re:Mixed Blessing (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Monday September 30, 2013 @12:22PM (#44993091) Journal

      If gasoline can be used in a carbon neutral way why get off it at all? It would be essentially rendered harmless.

      What you want to use ecologically horrific batteries everywhere?

      • by Ksevio ( 865461 )
        Well even if it's carbon neutral, it's still not healthy to breathe. We can get better use and collection of harmful exhaust if it's in a centralized location rather than lots of little ones. It also reduces our flexibility for energy, so we don't get the advantages of power plant improvements.
      • What you want to use ecologically horrific batteries everywhere?

        Because batteries are recyclable? Look at lead-acid batteries and lead content in the environment. We solved that problem by recycling them and now the bulk of the material used in new lead-acid batteries comes from the old ones.

        Every job has different requirements and we'll need to use multiple fuels for the different jobs. Gasoline has many good qualities and we should use it (if we can make it like this) for those. But I highly doubt we can make enough to completely replace the current demand.

    • Yes, but this is at least carbon-neutral gasoline (carbon in the air is re-used, rather than releasing carbon trapped in the ground), so it's still a huge step in right direction for clean energy.

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      Why? Seriously, why? I get it that hippies hate cars, and by extension hate gasoline, but lets ignore them.

      Here's the perfect ideal: a desert gourd that slowly fills with gasoline over the season. Every year the farmer harvests the crop. It's the perfect solar battery for transportation. What downside would you imagine for this plan?

      Also, here's a free clue: Central Committees with Five Year Plans are always the worst approach to anything. Let researchers work on each idea that seems promising (there'

      • by mellon ( 7048 )

        Benzene is toxic. Gut bacteria producing it will probably be bad. Aside from that, yes, gasoline is a really great way to store energy, and internal combustion engines are getting quite efficient, so this might well be a less toxic alternative to batteries. However, until it's reduced to practice there's no point in arguing about it.

    • The Diesel Engine was demoed at a French Expo in 1900 to run on peanut oil. Bio-diesel lets us use diesel engines where they are useful. Gasoline and oil based fuels are bad not because they are oil based, but because they release CO2 from 30 million years ago into the environment today without removing any.

      If you can make that fuel today to meet demand, then there is no change in the CO2 levels as everything you release was recently taken out. Zero-sum game and it's good.
  • by Ralph Wiggam ( 22354 ) on Monday September 30, 2013 @12:15PM (#44993001) Homepage

    The article mentions that people have created hydrocarbons like this before. The problem is always scaling up from lab scale to industrial scale. If the price of oil doubles, this kind of technology might be cost competitive. If oil stays anywhere close to where it is now, I seriously doubt we'll see this make any impact.

    • by tchdab1 ( 164848 )

      Or if global conflict made some sources inaccessible that might spur investment. Of course then it would drive up prices and, um, nevermind.

      • Are you referring to Syria? Syria exports less oil than Belgium or Thailand. The war there has no impact on global prices.

  • Is this going to be just used for replacing gas in our over-engineered ICE cars? If so, then this is potentially very unexciting. Battery tech is surely the future, especially as we're seeing at least 5% gains in energy density year after year.

    Granted, if it's as an economical alternative for creating energy other than coal or nuclear for general use, then sure, full steam ahead!
    • Turning a fossil fuel into a carbon-neutral renewable fuel that most vehicles on the roads could switch to overnight even if their owners don't have 5 digits to blow isn't "exciting" to you? I know ICEs are horrifically inefficient but that's still big news.

  • There's so much carbon-rich waste that could theoretically be "fuel" for this process, it's about time that people are looking into this possibility.
    In a sane competitive entrepreneurial world this would come out of the labs of the big oil companies, or from some "methane alley" start-up investment group. But seeing as how nearly every large tech-based corporation has repeated dropped the ball on follow-on technology and competition, I guess it's just more of the same.

  • Look, organically produced hydrocarbons, whether from poop, algae or [insert plant of your choice], are still either directly or indirectly dependent on the sun as an energy collector. As such, they are simply inefficient solar energy collection devices that produce a chemical as their output.

    All still require infrastructure, water, sunlight and land, which would otherwise be used for human cropland or to support a natural ecology.

    So, this might be great for something about the scale of a farm where the outputs weren't being put to any use, but don't expect to significantly add to civilization's energy budget.

    • by mellon ( 7048 )

      Towns have been drowned in pig shit when dams failed. There are plenty of sources of carbon at the moment, thank you. Of course, methane digesters are a proven technology that will also work on pig shit, so it'd be better to just get to work generating power with them, rather than waiting for this pipe dream to become a reality. When people figure out how to make gasoline digesters, we can probably upgrade the methane digesters.

    • Do you know what scales nicely? A thousand different solutions where each won't scale.

      If you convert your waste into fuel, you solve two problems: you get a bit of fuel, and you get ride of your waste. It does not need to scale beyond the waste supply for completely solving the second problem, and it will increase the efficiency of the inefficient solar energy collectors we use today.

      Now, if you want to help at increasing the efficiency of the crop growing and harvest, go ahead. it'll add (or, more specific

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday September 30, 2013 @01:39PM (#44993933) Journal
    This is exactly how Joules Energy is doing this, only with blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The advantage of using cyanobacteria is that it uses the sun and our sewage for feed stock. OTOH, by doing e-coli, they will have to feed it corn and other energy expensive feedstock.

    My guess is that since Joules Energy made the announcement 2 years ago about what they had worked towards for the previous 8 years, that South Korea is simply playing catch up.
  • If they make this stuff, and it works, , , , just think? We can pour it into the ocean!

    And then we'll have OCEANS of gasoline! :O
  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Monday September 30, 2013 @04:34PM (#44995607)

    A few days ago I saw an interesting comment about alternative fuels that re-cast the issue for me.

    Namely: they're a distraction. By focusing on the "greenness" of the fuel for cars, be it gas, ethanol, hydrogen, CNG, electricity...we ignore the problem of operation space and storage space (not to mention, the inefficiency, energy-wise, of moving 2 tons of metal just to move one person.) As population grows, we don't have space for everyone to bop around by themselves in their car, nor do we have the space to put them when they're not in use. Bloomberg figured this out a couple of years ago, for example, and hence his strong push of cycle infrastructure in NYC, to great result.

    Sure, more cars = not a problem in the middle of Nebraska. But in any metropolitan area, traffic is an enormous burden, and we cannot just throw more pavement at the problem. It's well known that adding lanes doesn't add capacity. We also don't have room for all these cars to park, at least not without paving every square inch in sight.

    We need to get people out of their cars. That means higher gas taxes (which haven't been adjusted in decades), car-sharing systems, legal protection for pedestrians and cyclists, and infrastructure spending on pedestrian walkways, cycleways, usable long distance/regional/local public transit (and ending the insistence that public transit pay for itself, something "private" road/infrastructure users aren't expected to do). For example: it is *idiotic* that you cannot take luggage or a bicycle with you on the entire Amtrak northeast corridor.

    Funding alternative fuels is fine, but don't do it if you won't fund alternative transportation infrastructure as well. Imagine what $2BN (what Obama wants to spend on "alternative fuels") can buy in terms of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

If you want to put yourself on the map, publish your own map.