The Globe and Mail posted an article about how U.S. biotech company, Joule Unlimited, recently received a patent for “a proprietary organism.” This organism is a genetically adapted (they prefer to use adapted as altered scares people) E. coli bacterium that feeds solely on carbon dioxide and excretes liquid hydrocarbons. Read that as a bacteria that has been adapted to produce gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel using nothing more than water, carbon dioxide and sunlight.
According to the biotech company, this breakthrough technology can deliver renewable supplies of liquid “fossil fuels” almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 a barrel of crude oil. They are dubbing this, “fossil fuels on demand.” That is all well and good, but I can imagine that when the rules of supply and demand are applied and standard crude oil becomes more expensive, that the $30 a barrel price will skyrocket and be no cheaper than what we’re already paying. These companies need to realize that the only way they can convince people to adopt new fuel sources is to make it more economical. A lot of people don’t care about the environment, but what they do care about is how much it costs to drive their car.
As opposed to bio-fuels, these micro-organisms don’t require “feedstock” such as corn, wood, or garbage. The process only requires carbon dioxide (no shortage here), sunshine and water (fresh, salt or filthy). The biotech company has referred to the process as “artificial photosynthesis.” The process is able to produce up to 25,000 gallons (800 barrels) of fuel per acre, per year. Compare that to corn ethanol which in the same time is only capable of producing 328 barrels per acre. This makes the E. coli process 50 times as efficient as conventional bio-fuel production and eliminates as much as 90% of carbon dioxide emissions. Think of it, our automobiles burn this fuel, which produces CO2, which in turn gets converted back into fuel by the same process. This may be an opportunity to finally balance out our CO2 emissions and stabilize our environment.
This announcement comes at a time when the average price per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has touched $3.33, almost five cents higher than the same time last year. Equally as worrying is that the Department of Energy announced in its latest short-term outlook that it expects the price to average $3.17 per gallon this year (39 cents higher than last year) but could be as high as $3.50 a gallon this summer due to market uncertainty. Let’s hope this technology is real and can be easily scaled up into full production to give us a little breathing room and ease our transition to a future of zero emission vehicles.