Oil You Can Eat: Bacteria Eat Rubbish, Egest Petrol

Splendid news from Silicon Valley: a flotilla of companies, including one called LS9, are now starting toblack_gold genetically engineer bacteria that poop petrol and eat any old rubbish:

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 key facts are that this is a carbon-neutral method of producing conventional crude oil (and all the good stuff you can get out of crude oil), that doesn’t cause food inflation, consumes waste biomass, and doesn’t require us to spend $billions upgrading our current transport infrastructure to compatibility with hydrogen fuel cells.

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.

The main onion in the ointment seems to be the scale required to produce the amount of oil needed:green_oil

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.

This is it: with oil prices continuing to break records and global warming coming around the corner this is the direction we need to go in (unless there’s some other huge problem with it, aside from the Chicago-sized thing?).

[story at Times Online, via Charlie’s Diary][images by nalilo and XcBiker]

5 thoughts on “Oil You Can Eat: Bacteria Eat Rubbish, Egest Petrol”

  1. I’m probably just missing something, but could someone explain why this should be “carbon neutral”?

  2. I guess it’s considered carbon-neutral because it’s using what would otherwise be considered waste products. The trouble is that carbon-neutral is a term that gets bandied around a lot without being defined precisely in each context; we could do with some trustworthy organisation to produce a decent benchmark to measure against.

  3. exciting development, good find. I think bacteria and algae will be the eventual producers of oil for at least plastics, long term. Whether we use oil for transport when it requires such large surface area is debatable.

  4. Can you turn this into a disaster novel? The bacteria ate my comics collection, and now we’re up to our eyeballs in oil. Great thing to have happen the day after we learned how to run cars on static electricity.

  5. Considering that the fermentation tanks don’t all have to be in one place, that 250 square miles isn’t as much as it sounds. They could be installed in existing buildings — even ones being used for other purposes. They can be stacked vertically on multi-floor buildings. They can be integrated into existing waste treatment systems — how many square miles are devoted to sewage purification plants and landfills today?

    Shoot, how many square miles are devoted to oil fields and petroleum processing in the United States?

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