Oil from Bacteria

There is new player in town, and it is a very interesting one.

Joule Unlimited is engineering bacteria species, including E.coli and species of cyanobacteria, to produce liquid hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel and ethanol. The bacteria utilize only CO2 and sunlight, and excrete hydrocarbons, so the process is a modified photosynthesis.

The entire process – from bacterial engineering to engineering the exposure to CO2, providing the water, collecting the hydrocarbons and separating them from the water, and then delivering the hydrocarbons – all remains very secret. What does it actually look like? The few pictures offered suggest an automated process that involves panels exposed to the sun, where the bacteria are exposed to high levels of CO2 and bathed in water.

The one picture available of the process reveals little (jouleunlimited.com)

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are too low as a carbon source for the bacteria, but waste levels produced at coal and natural gas power plants are just right. What else? Water is needed, and a lot of it. But apparently it need not just be fresh water – brackish and salt water will work as well.

Just as critically, the process is apparently efficient enough that the product should sell for about $30/barrel, competitive with the price of oil at the very best of times, let alone the $100 per barrel we now face.

Joule Unlimited, centered in Cambridge, Mass, describes what it has developed as a single step process to energy independence, unlimited fuel, total sustainability, all of it very scalable. Really quite an extraordinary claim. There is a growing sense that it may be real, and not just another fantasy.

The stakes are, of course, very high.

Sustainable oil production is the aim of other efforts to produce biofuels from corn and other crops, but this bacterial process involves no crops or cropland, leaving agricultural land available for growing food again instead. Using most, perhaps 90%, of the waste CO2 from power plants is obviously very attractive. Eliminating the need to explore for oil offshore oil and gas in increasingly risky deep water and Arctic regions would be an astounding development. It could even be an alternative in Canada to the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta tar sands exploitation – now there’s a dream worth dreaming.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, engineered to excrete hydrocarbons (jouleunlimited.com)

It still produces fuels whose burning returns CO2 to the atmosphere, and it doesn’t reduce our dependency on carbon-based fuels. It also doesn’t eliminate the need to exploit viable alternatives to carbon-based fuels, or to find more ways to conserve our use of energy. But it reduces some of the damage, and it buys us time.

Part of the excitement about this process is that it can be set up, at any scale, anywhere. This is, as they say, ‘game changing’.

A pilot effort is now underway in Leander,Texas, chosen for high levels of solar energy and a suitable source of CO2, and built on non-agricultural land. The first commercial product should be available in 2012, so we’ll know soon.

Can it all really be true? It sounds so good.

Search the Internet, see what you can find – I haven’t found anything yet that indicates that this is just another fantasy. Of course there are the usual skeptics, but their skepticism is as yet uninformed.

We can use some hope just now, in these fraught times.

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