I have mentioned LS9 here on several occasions, because I think what they are trying to do is pretty cool. They are trying to engineer bacteria that can consume biomass and excrete hydrocarbons. I have said before that I think someone will crack this problem sooner or later.
Then today I just ran across this story:
Company finds natural solution that turns plants into gasoline
After three years of clandestine development, a Georgia company is now going public with a simple, natural way to convert anything that grows out of the Earth into oil. J.C. Bell, an agricultural researcher and CEO of Bell Bio-Energy, says he’s isolated and modified specific bacteria that will, on a very large scale, naturally change plant material – including the leftovers from food – into hydrocarbons to fuel cars and trucks.
“What we’re doing is taking the trash like corn stalks, corn husks, corn cobs – even grass from the yard that goes to the dump – that’s what we can turn into oil,” Bell told WND. “I’m not going to make asphalt, we’re only going to make the things we need. We’re going to make gasoline for driving, diesel for our big trucks.”
The agricultural researcher made the discovery after standing downwind from his cows at his food-production company, Bell Plantation, in Tifton, Ga.” Cows are like people that eat lots of beans. They’re really, really good at making natural gas,” he said. “It dawned on me that that natural gas was methane.”
Bell says he wondered what digestive process inside a cow enabled it to change food into the hydrocarbon molecules of methane, so he began looking into replicating and speeding up the process.”Through genetic manipulation, we’ve changed the naturally occurring bacteria, so they eat and consume biomass a little more efficiently,” he said. “It works. There’s not even any debate that it works. It really is an all-natural, simple process that cows use on a daily basis.”
Is it for real? Hard to say. The concept is not science fiction. This is not that far removed from what I worked on in graduate school. Cows utilize microbes in their stomachs that break down cellulose into organic acids like acetic, propionic, and butyric acid. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the bacteria could be tweaked to produce butane instead of butyric acid.
However, longer chain hydrocarbons are going to be more difficult. It will take more than minor tweaks (IMO) to get rumen microbes to produce something like gasoline or oil. Long chain acids are produced, but in very low concentrations. Even if they got hydrocarbons produced instead of acids, the hydrocarbons in the gasoline range would be of very low concentration. I also find it a bit odd that “it dawned on him that natural gas was methane.” That’s not really a comment I expect to hear from someone on the cutting edge of biofuel research.
The article mentions a patent – presumably pending – but I have spent half an hour searching for it at the USPTO site without any luck. If anyone runs across it, let me know. That will give me a better idea of whether this is more like TDP – in that very big promises were made that never materialized – or whether there is actually something to this.