U.S. Biotech Company Has ‘Library’ of Genetically Engineered Organisms That Excrete a Variety of Hydrocarbon Fuels; Inputs Are CO2, Sunshine and Water

January 18th, 2011

Here’s part of a comment from Globe and Mail reader, Laid Back:

According to the article, the space required to supply current American consumption is an area the size of the state of Indiana. There are lots of areas in the American West with vast empty areas of desert and abundant sunlight (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona) albeit with little water. Here is the math:

(1) 800 barrels per year per acre is 2.2 barrels per acre per day.
(2) The US consumes 20 million barrels per day.
(3) This will require 9 million acres [ (2) divided by (1) ]
(4) One square kilometer is 247 acres
(4) 9 million acres is 36,800 square kilometers [ (3) divided by (4) ]

This is about the size of the state of Indiana.


How can an organism exist with only carbon dioxide as a physical input ? Isn’t it made of proteins ? Proteins have more than carbon as constituents. Doesn’t it have DNA ? Doesn’t it grow ? Wouldn’t it need other types of nutrients as inputs ? Does it reproduce ? If it doesn’t reproduce, where does it come from ? How do you make more of them to boost production and replace dead ones ? If it does reproduce, and escapes into the environment, what keeps it from spreading all over the surface of the planet and converting all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and coating the entire surface of the planet in stinking toxic hydro-carbons, killing off all other life forms ? (not to mention that removing all carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would cause all plant life to die which would kill everything higher up in the food chain).

Still, this is interesting.

Via: Globe and Mail:

In September, a privately held and highly secretive U.S. biotech company named Joule Unlimited received a patent for “a proprietary organism” – a genetically adapted E. coli bacterium – that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, “fossil fuels on demand.”

We’re not talking “biofuels” – not, at any rate, in the usual sense of the word. The Joule technology requires no “feedstock,” no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered micro-organisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”

Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel. It has “proven the process,” has produced ethanol (for example) at a rate equivalent to 10,000 U.S. gallons an acre a year. It anticipates that this yield could hit 25,000 gallons an acre a year when scaled for commercial production, equivalent to roughly 800 barrels of crude an acre a year.

By way of comparison, Cornell University’s David Pimentel, an authority on ethanol, says that one acre of corn produces less than half as much energy, equivalent to only 328 barrels. If a few hundred barrels of crude sounds modest, recall that millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland are now used to make corn ethanol.

Joule says its “solar converter” technology makes the manufacture of liquid fossil fuels 50 times as efficient as conventional biofuel production – and eliminates as much as 90 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. “Requiring only sunlight and waste C0{-2},” it says, “[this] technology can produce virtually unlimited quantities of fossil fuels with zero dependence on raw materials, agricultural land, crops or fresh water. It ends the hazards of oil exploration and oil production. It takes us to the unthinkable: liquid hydrocarbons on demand.”

The company name honours James Prescott Joule, the 19th-century British scientist. Founded only four years ago, it has begun pilot-project production in Leander, Tex. Using modular solar panels (imagine an array of conventional panels in a one-acre field), it says it will quickly ramp up production this year toward small-scale commercial production in 2012.

Joule acknowledges its reluctance to fully explain its “solar converter.” CEO Bill Sims told Biofuels Digest, an online biofuels news service, that secrecy has been essential for competitive reasons. “Some time soon,” he said, “what we are doing will become clear.” Although astonishing in its assertions, Joule gains credibility from its co-founder: George Church, the Harvard Medical School geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984.

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