Gas that grows on trees? Bacteria that can turn plant matter, manure into real gasoline is now science fact, not fiction


E. Coli

In journalism school I became a biofuel dork. It sort of happened by accident, really. One dark winter term, I was assigned to write a 100+ page research paper. The topic I chose: biofuels.

While the vast majority of my work surrounded corn-derived ethanol, a small portion was devoted to biofuels created from bacteria.

At the time, the concept was a pipedream. There were some labs creating the stuff but the process was tedious and the resulting fuel would gum up conventional gasoline and diesel engines. Early experiments yielded biofuels that was close to the stuff we pull out of the ground but not close enough to avoid long-term reliability issues.

Now, however, it seems John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK has sorted the process out. Here’s how New Scientist describes Love’s process: “[Love] took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.” (DT’s emphasis)

While the creation is impressive, in its current state, Love’s biofuel-creating bacteria feeds on plant matter, which is monetarily and environmentally costly.

More impressive, however, Love wagers he can alter the genes of the bacteria to allow the biofuels to be created from a straw or animal manure diet, both of which are far more abundant and far less impactful.

It’s astonishing to fathom. In the near future, we might be able to take waste and turn it into gasoline for our cars from a process that is carbon neutral over its lifespan.

Now before you begin to spin conspiracy narratives about an oil industry uprising to kill the stuff, know that the research was partly funded by Shell. Perhaps the oil producer figures growing gasoline in a lab will soon be cheaper than extracting it from the earth?

I, for one, am very excited to see this breakthrough – I honestly never thought we’d get there. Now I hope we can just get it to a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable state.

What do you think? Should we (or Shell) look for more ways to make gas, or find other ways altogether to power our vehicles? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

Photo credit: adonofrio on Flickr

Showing 18 comments

  1. Lee Fox 12 months Ago  
    "" Now before you begin to spin conspiracy narratives about an oil industry uprising to kill the stuff, know that the research was partly funded by Shell. ""

    Even the article writer does not realize that Shell is not an oil company.

    They are an energy company.
  2. Lee Fox 12 months Ago  
    Clearly, you did not read the article, James.
  3. James Baxley-family 12 months Ago  
    Science is great, but many times "genius" seems to have NO COMMON SENSE !! Did anyone think, "What IF those bacteria ESCAPED into the ENVIRONMENT !!! Our world becomes one massive OIL Slick !! all plant matter destroyed !!!!!! --I think even the children story of MIDAS and the gold would/should make those "mad scientists" in the UK to quit "playing with fire" ????? !!!!!!
  4. Deb Cee 12 months Ago  
    Will someone "share" this with our Government ?
  5. Leon Farbes 12 months Ago  
  6. Jamz Johnson 12 months Ago  
    Fosil fuel above ground....key ingrediant grass and sun
  7. Jamz Johnson 12 months Ago  
    925 deep creek road fayetteville nc on sludge via sewer line break in front yard....research and old night club where james brown once played........
  8. Tom Pajak 12 months Ago  
    Same as algae that can be made into biofuel...just to dam expensive to bring to market
  9. Dmnklr Modz 12 months Ago  
    It's possible that this might very well help to reduce the deforestation problems throughout the world, so yes. On the other hand, chances are the UN will lay claim to it, patent it, shelve it and keep it away from the world so they can continue being greedy selfish losers and keep oil prices sky high.
  10. Alan Mcdonald 12 months Ago  
  11. Josh SF 12 months Ago  
    God damn it
  12. Ritchie Annand 12 months Ago  
    A note on CO2 emissions: note where the carbon is coming from. Part of the reason ground-based petroleum is an issue is that it's freeing sequestered carbon.

    When you deal with manure and plants, it's not totally neutral, because you're liberating carbon that might stay a little while before rotting away, but the carbon is already "out" - you're not unduly liberating ancient carbon from deep underground.
  13. Trevor Lee 12 months Ago  
    That's as good as money!
  14. James Baxley-family 12 months Ago  
    is this a good idea??
  15. jesterking 12 months Ago  
    Gasoline isn't going anywhere. Our entire infrastructure and way of life is based on it. Well Oil anyway. But gasoline is a huge component in that. So lets just not think about other alternatives for now. Sure, I think this will most likely be the last time we ever hear about this technology. Shell doesn't stand to make a whole lot of money initially through this. Not when demand is high and supply (according to them) is low. If they would try to implement this, it would cost an ungodly amount to even make it remotely viable.

    So what can they do? They could lease the rights to the technology to smaller companies, and let them start to create the supplies. Still, with renewable gasoline supplies, one can't help but wonder what we will do to help keep all of that carbon out of the atmosphere... Now if this went along with a synthetic wood for building and creating paper. That would be something. Yes, I know there are alternatives to wood such as the wood/plastic composites. But they are not quite there yet...

    interesting to read though. I hope they can figure a way to reduce the CO2 emissions...
  16. mrhacker95 12 months Ago  
    Shell will Copyright the Bacteria and sell off the rights to other companies and charge extremely high royalty fees.It would be something close to a Bio fuel Monopoly
  17. Aerobat 12 months Ago  
    Since the author asked for our thoughts, I will oblige.
    This is a fantastic scientific achievement that may lower the need to drill deep holes and risk damage to the environment. For that I applaud.

    However it still leaves the nasty last part of burning hydro-carbons which is the CO2, CO and, since the article didn't mention the byproducts of the chemical process, possibly other damaging residue. So, while it would truly help mitigate some of the environmental damage and risk, it could be better.

    What we need is an e.coli that can eat, what we call, organic waste and turn it onto Hydrogen with a byproduct of "Graphine" (Because that stuff is just incredible) ... OK, I'm kidding.

    But seriously, it would be good if this chemical process could make a cleaner burning hydrocarbon than gasoline ... as long as we're in there tweaking e.coli DNA.
  18. FiveseveN 12 months Ago  
    "Should we (or Shell) look for more ways to make gas, or find other ways altogether to power our vehicles?"

    Definitely continue researching better long-term replacements but keep finding interim solutions like this. The sooner we can extricate from foreign entanglements for oil, the better.