Petrol Excreting Bugs

Greg Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software in order to embark on an extraordinary race to make the dependency for oil from Saudi Arabia obsolete. Instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – for example promoting the use of hydrogen fuel – Pal and his team are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that their “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but will also be carbon negative, meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

 Renewable petroleum (Credit: LS9)
petroleum (Credit: LS9)

Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms that started out as yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modified their DNA. 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 didn’t 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 biofuel 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. Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready. 

Due to the much publicized problems created by using food crops for fuel the company is not interested in using corn as feedstock. Instead, various agricultural wastes will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy. 

Although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale. LS9 plans to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, work on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011. If LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel. 

The big question is, are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? “It’s not the same as with food,” Mr. Pal says. “We’re putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When we’re done with them, they’re destroyed.” 

TFOT recently covered the use of biofuels in airlines as well as Milner Motors’ ElectriCar and Honda’s new fuel cell car

More on LS9’s petroleum excreting bugs can be found on the company’s website.