Also it was a good X Files monster.

Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol

They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-designing their DNA. Because crude oil 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.

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.

"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.

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33 Responses:

  1. temp_revenge says:

    I prefer the Russian suckerfish man.

  2. lindseykuper says:

    They couldn't get them to excrete chocolate? Or kittens?

  3. phoenixredux says:

    Sounds like what happens when I eat at Perkins.

  4. xinit says:

    I wonder if cheap petrol-like-substance is really the best idea, but hey, anything that lets people justify driving an SUV...

    • Supposedly the process is carbon-negative. (I.e. it takes more carbon that is emitted from the burning oil.)

    • waider says:

      I've seen it pointed out elsewhere that subsidising a destructive behaviour isn't exactly the best way to curb it. I am failing to capture the exact wording, but the general gist of it is that rather than trying to replace/replenish the oil, it'd be a bit smarter to work on figuring out how to do without it.

      • karlshea says:

        Actually, like someone pointed out above, this process is either carbon-neutral or carbon-negative.

        The problem with burning fossil fuels isn't the fact that we're putting carbon in the atmosphere, the problem is that we're putting NEW carbon in the atmosphere. This bacteria has to get the carbon from somewhere, and it takes it from the surrounding environment, making this process a closed carbon system.

        Plus, it's a perfect replacement for normal oil because it will work with everything that runs on oil right now, with no modifications.

        • waider says:

          I think you missed the point I was making (or at least referring to), so I'll restate it: the problem isn't so much that we face increasing difficulty in maintaining the oil supply at current levels, the problem is that current levels of oil usage are needlessly high. This technology, while interesting, is treating the symptom (oil scarcity) instead of the cause (wasteful consumption).

          Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go sit in (or "drive", as the hip kids say) my single-occupancy-yet-five-seater car in rush-hour traffic for an hour or so in order to cover a distance of ten miles.

      • jwz says:

        it'd be a bit smarter to work on figuring out how to do without it.

        That's a fine idea, and I'm all for it, but the jury is still very much out on whether that's even possible without first purging the planet of five billion people or so.

  5. dossy says:

    Holy shit people, where's the foresight?

    Sure, this might drive down the price of petrol, but how will it drive up the price of sugar? Supply and demand - if the demand for sugar goes up and the supply isn't increased proportionally ... well ...

    And, I'm guessing we depend a lot more on sugar than we do petrol?

    • Well, it's a lot easier to make more sugar than it is to make more gasoline.

      But I agree. This is the same issue that has me, despite living in Iowa, not supporting ethanol.

    • Although if you actually read the article, it says they're going to use agriculture waste.

      Props for not bothering to inform yourself before commenting-1 point to me!

    • mackys says:

      Tell you what scares me...

      What happens when (not if) a few of these bugs get accidentally poured down into the sewers, and thence out into the ocean? Yeah, I know, it's unlikely that they'll survive, but what if? The possibilities make the Exxon Valdez look like a spilled milk-shake. (Life imitates Stephenson's Zodiac?)

      I don't know why we feel the need to genetic engineer oil-creating microbes anyway, since common pond scum (aka algae) already secrets oil anyway. And since algae is already in the environment, it's nowhere near the level of hazard of bioengineered stuff. I guess there just aren't any patent royalties to be made from something anyone can scoop out of a pond.

  6. darth_spacey says:

    How do LS9 define "agricultural waste"? This sounds an awful lot like grey goo waiting to happen.

  7. cattycritic says:

    This is the opposite of the "bug" they've been trying to use for decades to eat oil spills and excrete, erm. . . I dunno. It has been a failure because they can't seem to convince the bacteria to multiply fast enough to make any difference.

  8. pyrop says:

    I'm still waiting for the bug that eats plastic.

  9. editer says:

    "Well, I guess the bad news is that the Martians have landed. The good news is that they eat Mormons and pee gasoline."

  10. I'm waiting for the "bug" that uses photosynthesis and carbon dioxide in the air directly to make petrol and cut out the middleman (plants).

  11. 1eyedkunt says:

    every so often one of these miracle cures for the oil problem pops up and everyone gets all excited and invariably nothing happens. if it sounds too good to be true it probably is, and if it's really as productive as they claim it is, there'd be VC guys clamoring to make a demonstration plant happen a whole hell of a lot faster than 2010. I'd love it if this were for real, but I don't think it's news to get excited about till they're actually in production and selling the shit at the nearest gas station.

  12. sir_bissel says:

    So how long until they mutate and decide that human flesh sounds tasty?