Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.
The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.
The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.
“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure. We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”
Even those who like coal know it’s not the most lovable source of energy out there. But coal, dirty and destructive to the environment by its nature, remains after all these centuries a cheap and effective fuel source for much of the world.
In the United States alone, coal use rose more than 75 percent since 1980 but began declining s in 2010 and is expected to continue that trend through 2015. After that, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects domestic consumption to rise through 2035.
But the biggest increases in demand are coming from China and India, which according to an International Energy Agency in December will lead growth in global consumption by 2017. China is already the biggest importer of coal and India is set to surpass the United States as the second-largest consumer. The fuel already provides around 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs, according to the International Energy Agency.