Escherichia coli bacteria produce diesel on demand

Apr 22, 2013
It sounds like science fiction but a team from the University of Exeter, with support from Shell, has developed a method to make bacteria produce diesel on demand. While the technology still faces many significant commercialization challenges, the diesel, produced by special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and so does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils. Credit: Marian Littlejohn

It sounds like science fiction but a team from the University of Exeter, with support from Shell, has developed a method to make bacteria produce diesel on demand. While the technology still faces many significant commercialisation challenges, the diesel, produced by special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and so does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils. This also means that the diesel can be used with current supplies in existing infrastructure because engines, pipelines and tankers do not need to be modified. Biofuels with these characteristics are being termed 'drop-ins'.

Professor John Love from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said: "Producing a commercial that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset. Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral biofuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80% reduction in by 2050. Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect."

E. coli bacteria naturally turn sugars into fat to build their cell membranes. oil molecules can be created by harnessing this natural oil production process. Large scale manufacturing using E. coli as the catalyst is already commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry and, although the biodiesel is currently produced in tiny quantities in the laboratory, work will continue to see if this may be a viable commercial pathway to 'drop in' fuels.

Rob Lee from Shell Projects & Technology said: "We are proud of the work being done by Exeter in using advanced biotechnologies to create the specific hydrocarbon molecules that we know will continue to be in high demand in the future. While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialisation, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel, along with other intelligent technologies, we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel."

Explore further: DOE 'Knowledgebase' links biologists, computer scientists to solve energy, environmental issues

More information: "Synthesis of customized petroleum-replica fuel molecules by targeted modification of free fatty acid pools in Escherichia coli," by Thomas P. Howard et al. PNAS, 2013.

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User comments : 10

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Jimee
1 / 5 (2) Apr 22, 2013
It sounded good until they revealed that Shell was a partner. Hmmm, still 25 years down the line?
italba
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2013
Shell wants to sell oil, doesn't matter if it comes from underground or from bacteria. If this technology will be cost competitive with current oil sources, Shell will be glad to use it.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2013
If this technology will be cost competitive with current oil sources, Shell will be glad to use it.

Possibly.
Another possibility is that they will patent and then bury it to maximize profits on dwindling oil supplies.
Or, if they use it, that they will artificially inflate the price so as to make regular oil still sellable (they still have all those oil fields which produce the stuff - for Shell - at next to no cost)
Remember: Profit maximization is Shell's goal - not production of oil and oil based products. They most certainly will do nothing that could lessen their profits. Least of all deploy a source that will undercut the price of - or lessen the demand for - their other products.

I'll agree with Jaimee here. If this has been supported by anyone else then I'd be more enthusiastic about its prospects.
italba
3 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2013
Oil extraction is not a low cost business. You need big equipments, expensive researches, high skilled crew. And you have to pay royalties to somebody. If you could substitute all of these expenses with some tank filled with water, sugar and free (you own it!) bacteria, you'll surely maximize your profit! Obviously, it will not be a one day (neither a one decades) switch.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2013
Oil extraction is not a low cost business.

If you check around the web you will find that extraction ( including all ancillary expenditure such as finding, developing and maintaining a field) is pretty low.
It tops out at 40$ per barrel in e.g. UK off shore fields and can be as low as 4$ per barrel in Saudi Arabia (Middle East is generally all lower than 10$ per Barrel). Sales prices are currently between 90$ and 100$ per Barrel. For anyone in the Middle East that's up to 96% pure profit (and anywhere else no less than 55% profit...That's - under WORST CASE conditions - about the profit margin of Apple, and under best case conditions...erm...there's really nothing to compare this to.)

So I stand by my assessment. Getting oil from oil fields is virtually free for Shella and the likes.
geokstr
3 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2013
Oil extraction is not a low cost business.

...up to 96% pure profit (and anywhere else no less than 55% profit...
So I stand by my assessment. Getting oil from oil fields is virtually free for Shella and the likes.


Stand by anything you like.

"Extraction" costs are far from the only costs of oil. It takes a lot of investment in the first place (unless like the Saudis you can just nationalize other peoples' investment) and then to refine it and get it to market. The average oil company makes 6.2% on sales in net profit.
http://seekingalp...ger-fish

Liberals know absolutely nothing about business and capitalism. They simply have been indoctrinated to hate it.

Better to have socialism, where instead of having to actually produce something of value that people want, induced by the lure of evil profits, the best way to success is to kiss the posteriors of your political overlords.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2013
"Extraction" costs are far from the only costs of oil. It takes a lot of investment in the first place

As noted. these costs I mentioned already include all these costs:
finding the field
developing it
AND extracting the oil (along with all maintenance issues)

This is for oil fields only. That oil companies have other business interests (and expenditures) is their issue. The oil itself is 'black gold' - and there is no way they will cut into those profits by putting something on the market that would undercut those profits.
italba
3 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2013
It seems that somebody was indoctrinated to see socialists under each blade of grass. Relax, please!
@antialias: Shell itself is developing this technology, so if they cut profits from underground oil, they'll earn from bacteria oil! It is the same old "devil's shit"!
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 23, 2013
Arguably bacterial oil is better, as it is at least carbon neutral over the entire cycle. Though that doesn't include all the other nasties that are produced in any combustion reaction, so it's a bit of a mixed blessing.

My guess is that they'll just patent the gene and then sue anyone into oblivion who tries to bring it to market.
hopper
not rated yet Apr 27, 2013
Shell is behind the curve on this technology. There are a couple companies that have already developed strains of bacteria that produce diesel. My favorite is Joule Unlimited. They're currently building out a 1000 acre farm in New Mexico. There are other companies doing similar work. The killer app for deserts would be if they combined the work of Joule with that of Sundrop Farms.