Renewable Petroleum, From a Bug’s Behind?

It’s no surprise that with the increasing concern about climate change and energy costs (not to mention the billions of public and private dollars being invested), there are a slew of gizmos, gadgets, doodads, and other innovations being championed on an almost daily basis.

A few of these, like highway wind turbines, have me shaking my head in amusement. But some are just plain head-scratchers. Take this for example:

[T]he 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”.

The bad news is that they have to genetically alter a nonpathogenic strain of the E.coli bug, a time consuming and costly venture. And to scale production to meet the gasoline needs of the US transportation fleet, you’d need a plant that covers 205 square miles. (I have no idea energy intensive this process is, by the way.)

The good news is that this bug poop can go straight into your gas tank, without the need for modification, and that the bugs will eat whatever waste products can be found locally.

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…

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.

I hope I’ll be forgiven if I remain skeptical for the time being.

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