Genetically-Engineered Organism Secretes Diesel

Image © Joule Unlimited, Inc.

It sounds like science fiction but according to an article by Jay Lindsay of the Associated Press, A Massachusetts company has a patent on a genetically modified organism that secretes diesel fuel from water, sun and CO2 inputs. Here’s an excerpt:

Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Normally I am opposed to genetically modified plants but this would appear to be a contained situation. Would it be a good thing for the planet if we had unlimited diesel fuel? I would guess that the CO2 would be net neutral whatever escapes the exhaust pipe would have had to have gone into the fuel initially – right?

Mass. company making diesel with sun, water, CO2

I’m curious what other people think about this.

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  1. I can’t think of it as a clean energy, and what we need is clean energy.

    I don’t think carbon neutral is as good as carbon negative. Not for clearing the air, anyway.

  2. “their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water”

    I would need more information on that statement to have an informed opinion.

  3. It would end up being carbon negative. The cyanobacteria would use some CO2 for growth and reproduction, sequestering that bit. I think this is fantastic.

  4. I’m certainly interested. I would need a lot more information before offering an opinion.
    It sounds like they still have some engineering problems to work out.
    Definitely something to keep an eye on though.
    Nice find!

  5. their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water

    I think that as long as the water can be reused it would be ok. Probably any current technology for refining oil has similar if not worse issues.

    I also think that carbon neutral is pretty darn fabulous given our dependence on oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands etc…We are way too far from any realist alternatives at this point.

  6. On paper it looks great. By my calculations (and bear in mind it is the end of the day here, so my brain isn’t exactly sharp right now), with a mere 220K acres of sunny land, this process could produce the 9M gallons of diesel/gas (not interchangeable, I know, but close enough for jazz) that the US chews through each day. That’s using the company’s 15K gallons/acre/year number. So let’s say it’s off by an order of magnitude. That means something like 2M acres of land needed. I guess that’s not terrible, especially since it can take advantage of marginal/non-arable land.

    The process sounds INCREDIBLY water-intensive, though. And sadly, most of the places with good sun profiles have poor water profiles. Another issue lots of these bioreactors face is maintaining pure cultures. As the bacteria go about their business, they tend to mutate to better survive whatever environment they are placed in. This often means that as time goes on, more and more of your reacting biomass produces little or no product. The fact of the matter is that you are asking a living cell to take high-entropy inputs like sunlight and convert them into low-entropy outputs like diesel. Any mutation that lets the cell tap into that locked up energy is going to be selected for, and you end up with lots of bacteria not doing any useful work.

    Just the $0.02 from a passing lurker.

  7. I see big problems…. Water use, placement just to name a few. Note that these people are not making the fuel themselves, but selling the tech. The people they sell it to will be the same people who brought the mess in the gulf. They will set up to make money… close to water and close to market… Farmland. Using water we already don’t have… should make lots of oxygen though. What is the energy input to remove the water from the fuel? What will that energy cost a few years from now? How will that effect the cost of the product. Finally (for me… though I am sure there are more worries) how many puddles of diesel fuel are we going to find on nearby properties (or not so nearby) when the algae gets into the environment…. and how many people will loose their property to law suit because some rich oil company finds some of “their” algae on someone’s land.

  8. Can anyone think of anything that is genetically modified and touted as a boon that turned out to be dangerous for us? Okay, so there are other genetic modifications that are helpful. I worry that the people who will make the millions from this will not care about the consequences.

  9. I’m with Julie. What happens if the GMO’s escape containment and flourish in the oceans, putting diesel into that environment? Yeah, I know we already do that pretty handily ourselves with the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. Still, it’s not likely that this is going to be the one technological “advance” with absolutely no unintended consequences.

    Early reports are rarely reliable on this sort of thing. They’re often made up of best case scenarios and at least some wishful thinking. Especially when it comes to claims about what the product will sell for. $30/barrel when the conventional stuff is selling at $90? I very much doubt it.

  10. Great comments! Even though there are different opinions voiced here I feel like I tend to agree with all of them. This could be great but it’s also kind of scary. It’s amazing how quickly technology produces new sometimes unexpected solutions to longstanding problems but often at the same time introducing new problems or at least risks.

    This will be a good story to keep our eyes on.

  11. I like it. I’m not a huge fan of GMO’s but GMO’s have their benefits as well as drawbacks, I love clean diesel, I have a truck with a veggie conversion (I’m going to take it out and just make some biodiesel) and a car that can run biodiesel, that’s all i drive. I can see this technology being used in wastewater treatment facilities, cyanobacterium not only convert CO2 to hydrocarbons, they also remediate nitrogen and phosphorous from water. Victor Valley Wastewater Authority in the inland empire has been exploring algaefuels for a few years now. that will also make the issue of finding water a non issue. They would of course need to fix that fuel in the water issue, which i’m sure wastewater treatment facilities have experience in doing. I do believe there was something developed for that at UCSB recently.

    Jason makes an interesting evolutionary point. however the way the system is set up, these cyanebacteria will have no competition to force it to evolve. what it does combat though, is if the cyanobacteria get out into the wild, it would then face competition which can drive it out and essentially make it being an escaped GMO a non-issue as well.

    I do get excited about diesel anything advances, i wish there were more diesel vehicles available in CA. these new Clean diesel advances are pretty exciting too.

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