...the company began speaking more openly about what it has accomplished: it has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.
To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you're left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.
"I am very impressed with what they're doing," says James Collins, codirector of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University. He calls the company's use of synthetic biology and systems biology to engineer hydrocarbon-producing bacteria "cutting edge."There is in fact a second company that is working on a similar idea (earlier TR article) and there may be others. Currently these various companies are working on relatively costly food sources but they intend to find cheaper ones to use waste biomass:
LS9's current work uses sugar derived from corn kernels as the food source for the bacteria--the same source used by ethanol-producing yeast. To produce greater volumes of fuel, and to not have energy competing with food, both approaches will need to use cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, as the feedstock. Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.As I commented at Baen's Bar, the great advantage about the modified E.Coli sort of approach is that it tends to scale down well. As in you can have one running in your back yard in a barrel sort of scale down. Now there is clearly a good deal of work to be done before we're at the final stage but eventually everyone ought to be able to take all the lawn cuttings and leaves and turn them into petrol.