File this story under “too good to be true.” Silicon Valley scientists have genetically engineered a bacteria that eats agricultural waste and shits crude oil. They’ve produced the world’s first jar of renewable crude oil. The bacteria, a non-pathogenic e. coli variant, literally consumes biomass, such as woodchips and wheat straw, and excretes nearly tank-ready diesel.
This is pretty amazing. They have literally taken a process that normally is measured on the geological time-scale and reduced the time it takes to days. A 1,000 liter jug of the bug can produce a barrel of crude in a week. We are moving closer to the ultimate source of all energy on our planet – the sun. Fossil fuels are simply stored solar energy from the distant past. This process makes the solar energy stored in plants available to us now in a form that our entire economic infrastructure is built to handle.
My first thought when reading the article was, “Great, just what the atmosphere needs, more oil burn-off.” But the scientists claim that this production technique is carbon-negative. They don’t go into detail as how that can be. They claim the means of production absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than is produced by burning the fuel. My guess is that they are measuring from the wrong place. Sure, the plants that they use to feed the bacteria absorb carbon. But that is carbon that would have been stored by the plant waste for years. Converting it to oil and burning it will reduce the carbon turnaround time to weeks, if not days. Still, making oil renewable is a step in the right direction.
I also noticed that they didn’t talk about the cost of production. They did mention that it took $20,000 to genetically modify the bacteria, but once it’s modified, it’s self-reproductive, so that’s not a production cost. I guess the main cost would be whatever it takes to keep the bugs alive and healthy. Since we’ve already been doing the same thing with synthetic human insulin for decades, it must be cost-effective. Sure enough, they plan a demonstration-scale plant in two years, and a production-scale one in three. This puts it years ahead of it’s hydrogen-producing-bacteria competitor, which is unfortunate as hydrogen is much cleaner (its burn-off waste).