June 15, 2008
Guilt-Free Petroleum


Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls "renewable petroleum". After that, he grins, "it's a brave new world".

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. "All of us here everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency," Mr Pal says.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this "Oil 2.0" will not only be renewable but also carbon negative meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

This is of course not the only effort going on to use microbes to synthesize petroleum and/or its derivatives (I remember an oil company commercial from the late 1970s or early 1980s touting their R&D work along these lines). What's interesting, though, is that this is yet another petroleum alternative that high oil prices are making more attractive, and one that doesn't (as the quote above states) require the complete rebuilding of the transportation fuel infrastructure. So, it's a more realistic and economically practical oil alternative than, say, a hydrogen-fueled car.

Of course, the amusing part is that it is theoretically a carbon-negative fuel source -- the microbes take more carbon out of the atmosphere than what they excrete as a useable oil (if that doesn't seem to make sense, recall that the microbes themselves require carbon for their own structure).

On the other hand, since this approach requires genetic engineering, the watermelons and luddites will no doubt put the kibosh on it regardless of its benefits -- the only thing more intolerable than the idea of environmental-guilt-free petroleum sustaining the Western lifestyle of individuality, independence, and material happiness is the knowledge that that guilt-free petroleum comes from "frankenbacteria".

Posted by T.L. James on June 15, 2008 05:34 PM | TrackBack