Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Peak Oil: Meet Microbial Petroleum Producers

Creating micro-organisms that can synthesise renewable hydrocarbons for fuels and feedstocks, is one aim of synthetic biology.
The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it's generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9's microbes produce -- via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won't claim to understand -- hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don't mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That's where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

David Berry, one of the brains behind LS9, has won the Young Innovator of the Year award from MIT's Tech Review.
Berry's goal was nothing less than "to develop a novel and far-reaching solution to the energy problem." In col­laboration with genomics researcher George Church of Harvard Medi­cal School and plant biologist Chris Somerville of Stanford University, Berry and his Flagship colleagues set out to do something that had never been attempted commercially: using the tools of synthetic biology to make microörganisms that produce something like petroleum. Berry assumed responsibility for proving that the infant company, dubbed LS9, could produce a biofuel that was renewable, better than corn-derived ethanol, and cost-­competitive with ­fossil-based fuels.

I understand that Chris Somerville -- a leading figure in the plant biology field -- is also at work on plants that are genetically engineered to produce biodegradable plastics. Now if they could just integrate that idea with these petroleum-producing microbes, we'd really have something to celebrate.

If synthetic biologists can create microbes that efficiently create "petroleum" in an industrial environment--out of renewable materials and skipping any energy-wasting distillation process--the economics of the future of energy might change a bit.

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