Cross-posted from The Breakthrough Blog
Scientists in Silicon Valley are spending their time and energy on teeny, tiny bugs, planning for big results. The organisms may be microscopic in size but they do something extraordinary: they excrete "renewable petrol" as they feed on agricultural waste.
While the scientists and entrepreneurs behind developing "Oil 2.0" are in California, this is not fodder for Hollywood. The companies experimenting with genetically altered bacteria and oil production have notable investors on board (like Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems), the attention of many oil industry veterans, millions of dollars, and what they are doing may have real implications for our energy future.
The bugs they are tinkering with are actually single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They begin as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli then scientists modify their DNA. It is worth noting here that crude oil is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids derived from E. coli or industrial yeast during fermentation. The excrement, therefore, can be altered relatively easily to produce Oil 2.0 as it is fermented. The implication of this is that the bugs can excrete liquid nearly ready to pump into your gas tank.
The researchers exploring the viability of Oil 2.0 claim that the technology will be carbon negative, as the organisms will spew out less carbon dioxide emissions than the emissions absorbed by the raw materials during their lifetimes. The microscopic organisms can also consume what is found in their backyard and are not reliant on a single food source.
Companies experimenting with Oil 2.0 do not know if the technology is scalable, or if so, when. "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 Greg Pal, senior director of LS9, one company looking into Oil 2.0. Mr. Pal added that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel... a significant drop from the record prices of today.
This is just another example of the kind of human ingenuity that will help us meet the energy needs of the 21st Century. Regardless of whether these teeny bugs will yield a scalable solution - or if I agree with a straight-up substitution of Oil 2.0 for today's oil - experimental technology solutions like this remind me of the power and value of thinking big, and being open to new ideas when it comes to energy solutions.