Bugs engineered to make biofuels
Genetically modified microbes engineered to make fuels, like ethanol and diesel, are creating a lot of buzz in biofuels.
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America has long dreamed of growing its way to energy independence — ethanol, biodiesel and other plant-based fuels can wean us from climate-changing, budget-busting oil.
But biofuels have baggage. They take lots of energy, fertilizer, farmland and water. Well now some university labs and hi-tech companies promise a way past those problems. These ambitious scientists and entrepreneurs use genetic engineering to get fuel straight out of tiny plants and microbes. It's a process called direct solar liquid energy.
Joule Biotechnologies is in the business of making this kind of energy. In one of its labs, solar converters are being tested.
The converters are tabletop-sized rectangular, plastic frames; each with dozens of clear, skinny tubes running their length. Each tubes bubbles with a greenish liquid.
The bubbles are carbon dioxide; the greenish color comes from a tiny, genetically modified organism. Plants or bacteria, maybe.
"So, we use the tools of synthetic biology in order to start with a base organism, but actually by modifying pathways, create new organisms that we have engineered to directly secrete fuels and chemicals," explains Joule CEO, Bill Sims.
One engineered organism can make ethanol. Another makes diesel fuel. Sims envisions these panels in a sunny locale, soaking up CO2 from a power plant, and sending a constant stream of fuel-laden water to a separation facility.
He says an acre of the solar converters could produce many times what biofuel crops do. "So there's no intermediary like cellulose or like algae that has to be grown, has to be processed as part of their process to create fuels or chemicals. We also don't require fresh water, we don't require agricultural land. We are converting CO2, and what is viewed by most people as bad into something good: renewable, clean fuel."
It might sound too good to be true, but Sims says it really works that way.
"We aren't converting sunlight to electrons, we're converting sunlight to liquid fuels in a cost-effective manner that has essentially and unlimited supply.
"It works for real. We get continued improvements on our productivity, and we're finalizing our negotiations to break ground on a pilot plant in early 2010."
Just what the new organisms are that Joule engineered is a secret. Sims is tight-lipped when it comes to intellectual property, a common trait among the handful of companies trying this technology.
But in academia, things are a bit more open source.
Biochemistry professor Larry Wackett leads a team at the University of Minnesota. They're taking a different approach to direct solar fuels. Wackett says, no matter how much you modify an organism, you can only teach it so many tricks.
"If you try to engineer that organism to do many additional things, it puts stress on it and it's often very difficult to highly engineer that to do all of the things that you want."
Wackett's working on a bacterial buddy system. A genetically modified cyanobacteria, the ancient bugs that were the Earth's first photosynthesizers, and a bacteria called Shewanella, which is good at churning out the building blocks of hydrocarbon fuels.
"Now if you take a photosynthetic organism," says Wackett, "something that harvests sunlight; and then you take another organism that will now take the energy from the photosynthetic organism -- the carbon -- and convert that into something that you want -- like a hydrocarbon -- this could be a very effective team."
Professor Wackett's Minnesota team was among three universities to win highly competitive grants last month from the Department of Energy to develop direct solar liquid fuels. And the Minnesota lab has spun out a small company called, BioCee.
Jim Lane, who keeps tabs on the biofuel industry as editor of the "Biofuels Digest," says these companies already have a nickname: "The Magic Bug Guys." And they're generating a lot of buzz.
"The energy has been building up for several years in research," said Lane. "And the two companies that have gotten a lot of attention lately: Joule Biotechnologies and also BioCee -- they've really proven at the bench-scale that their technology really works."
While there is a lot of excitement around the two companies and the kinds of biofuels they're creating, Lane says they still have a ways to go.
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