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Bugs produce diesel on demand

The irony: the answer to “clean” energy might not be the glossamer sun or the lilting breeze, but an infectious germ.

[Science Daily] …a team from the University of Exeter, with support from Shell, has developed a method to make bacteria produce diesel on demand. While the technology still faces many significant commercialisation challenges, the diesel, produced by special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel…

They’re not there yet, yields are … tragic.

[BBC] Professor Love said it would take about 100 litres of bacteria to produce a single teaspoon of the fuel.

“Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” he said.

But speaking as someone who did microbiology, sooner or later, the bug solution is coming. I presume everyone knows the old exponential growth story where one bacteria weighing 10-12 of a gram, doubles every 20 minutes, and if Earth were a cheesecake, 2 days later you’ve converted it into E.Coli (and 4000 times over)? (There’s more on this theme here).

There is power in them efficient little biology machines. Our chemical factories are mere shadows of the curmudgeonly ‘Coli. Though in the end — even bacteria need to be fed, and these ones will be eating some kind of sugar. It has to come from somewhere.

To create the fuel, the researchers, who were funded by the oil company Shell and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, used a strain of E. coli that usually takes in sugar and then turns it into fat.

Using synthetic biology, the team altered the bacteria’s cell mechanisms so that the sugar was converted to synthetic fuel molecules instead.

Other biofuels are pathetic

Apparently biofuel made from vegetable oil is so bad it’s worse than fossil fuels. See the recent report by Chatham House.

For some inexplicable reason, the EU has decided the UK must use 5% biofuels in its fuel mix starting from last week. (And just who runs the country eh?) But the ethanol distilled from corn and rapeseed oil are not so environmentally friendly.  Tropical forests get razed to grow the palm oil, and hungry people can’t eat the corn that’s fed to cars, it’s expensive (UK motorists need to pay out an extra £460m a year),  and it isn’t very good at reducing CO2 (if that mattered). Basically it kills humans and trees, but protects underground rocks.

So some bright spark thought we ought insist on people using “used cooking oil” — which would’ve been thrown away. But apparently there are too many hungry cars on the road and the price of “used cooking oil” rose so high that it was a sensible financial decision to buy new palm oil, fry a single dim-sim in the vat, and sell the lot at a premium because it was now “used”.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Read it all at the BBC. H/t to Colin.


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