Monday, June 16, 2008

Bugs That Eat Garbage Make Oil

Science fiction is a wonderful space in the world of literature, making it's readers dream about things that are out of this world or in a time-period far into the future. Yet when tall tales become reality, people really take notice. LS9 might just be that latest dream-come-true. Imagine engineered bacteria that can eat garbage and secrete oil. Not only is it oil, but oil that does not harm the environment. The only thing I ask is that they make it and make a lot of it soon, because our world needs a miracle.

From The UK Times:

LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firm’s president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. “How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company?” he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being “prerevenue”.

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.

This is the type of innovation that our country and our world needs. If only our government had helped, we could have been farther along down this path. Our current government would rather stick to oil in the way that oil sticks nearly anything it touches. In a few short months we will have a new Administration that can not only help bring out products like LS9, but wind, water and solar energy as well. The more options we have out on the table, the better. For now we'll watch these little bugs and hope for the best.