Petroleum excreting bugs

Could bugs be the answer to our petroleum problems?? With gas prices rising it is increasingly important for scientists/companies to find or create new sources of energy and specifically new sources of oil, which can be turned into gasoline.

One such company is LS9.? They have altered micro-organisms that feed of agricultural waste, like woodchips or wheatstraw, and then excrete crude oil.? Sounds like a sci-fiction story or something from The Onion or an April Fool’s Day Joke, but according to the Times UK Online this is a reality.

Mr [Greg] 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.

Urgency is the correct word.? There has to be a stop gap from now, when naturally occurring oil is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average driver, until our automobiles run on something other than gasoline or something affordable or until gasoline becomes a carbon-neutral renewable resource.

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 bugs are excreting a substance that is basically pump-ready crude oil that can be used in engines or refined into gasoline or jet fuel.? As of right now, however, they are producing fuel at a test-tube or beaker level.? To produce the equivalent of America’s 143 million barrel oil use, the company would need a plant the size of Chicago – 205 square miles.

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