Renewable Diesel

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Renewable diesel is now a reality — on a very, very small scale:

The biotech company LS9 Inc. is using single-celled bacteria to create an oil equivalent. These petroleum “production facilities” are so small, you can see them only under a microscope.

“We started in my garage two years ago, and we’re producing barrels today, so things are moving pretty quickly,” said biochemist Stephen del Cardayre, LS9 vice president of research and development.

How does it work? A special type of genetically altered bacteria are fed plant material: basically, any type of sugar. They digest it and excrete the equivalent of diesel fuel.

Humans have used bacteria and yeast for centuries to do similar work, creating beer, moonshine and, more recently, ethanol. But scientists’ recent strides in genetic engineering now allow them to control the end product. [...] The bacteria used are a harmless form of E. coli. And the feedstock, or food for the microbes, can be any type of agricultural product, from sugar cane to waste such as wheat straw and wood chips. Choosing plants with no food value sidesteps one of the biggest criticisms of another synthetic fuel, corn ethanol, because critics say that corn should be used as food, not fuel.

Obviously scalability is an issue, and the bacteria still need food to work from. But renewable diesel has its advantages:

The LS9 product does not have the cancer-causing benzene that is in other fossil fuels and has far less sulfur, he said.

Leave a Reply