If you’re feeling ill trying to keep up with all the strange biofuel news these days, you might want to have some lab tests run. You could have a form of E. coli poisoning, a cyanobacteria outbreak, or maybe you accidentally ingested some highly toxic fire moss or perhaps bumped into a desert locust – feared since biblical times.
Indeed, the whole biofuels world is now “infected” with a serious buzz about microbe-produced liquids that one day may power our clunkers to the corner drug store to have our prescriptions filled!
The major headline, so far, was grabbed by Joule Biotechnologies Inc., a start-up firm from Cambridge, MA, that announced plans to produce transportation fuel and other biochemicals with a patent-pending “Helioculture” technology using photosynthetic organisms, sunlight, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and brackish water – with no other biomass required! Furthermore, Joule claims that its new procedure can produce up to 20,000 gallons per acre per year – compared to the “paltry” 2,000 gallons projected just last month by ExxonMobil’s new $600-million algae effort.
Joule’s president and CEO, Bill Sims, did not identify Helioculture’s “mystery critters” (as they were called by the New York Times) but he said they are not algae, not cellulose and not corn. “We believe we’re the first to use these organisms to produce fuel,” he said. “If I tell you what the organism is, I’m inviting everyone else to take part in a transformational, evolutionary, game-changing technology.” Sims said potential sites include Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, where sunshine and wide open spaces are plentiful. Flagship Ventures is a partner in the effort, which aims to break ground by next year, have a pilot by 2011, and commercial production by 2012.
Joule’s procedure, which also claims to be the first to use modular solar panels to produce liquid energy, caused immediate ripples in the biofuels web pond. Most of the blogging hasn’t centered on the technology, however – but over the identity of Joule’s critters. Scientific American thoughtfully concluded that they could be watermeal, a form of freshwater duckweed that produces the world’s smallest blooming plants. Other speculation ranged from cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) to just about everything else that grows in stinky, undrinkable water. Of course, there are some skeptics who identified them as that mythical old creature – “pie in the sky”.
Microbe-produced biofuel (other than algae) has been on the research list for several years – ranging from breakthroughs in laboratory projects in New Zealand earlier this decade to North Carolina State University’s hog farm waste project this spring. The idea of cyanobacteria and E. coli as producers of liquid fuel has caused a number of bioscientists to “burn the midnight oil,” while cutting-edge companies – like PetroAlgae Inc. of Melbourne, FL – have experimented with other microbes. Finally, there is no disputing the promise of bacterial fermentation as part of cellulosic ethanol’s emerging future, as proven by companies like Coskata Inc. of Warrenville, IL, or the engineering of microbes to enhance production of biodiesel (as well as medical treatments), as shown by companies like Amyris Biotechnologies Inc. of Emeryville, CA.
What may come to a shock to us, however, is that the U.S. Department of Energy has been supporting the genomic study of these single-cell creatures for years – and in fact, just weeks ago announced funding for 71 new projects through its Joint Genome Institute (JGI), based in Walnut Creek, CA. The winners can be found on JGI’s website at http://www.jgi.doe.gov/sequencing/cspseqplans2010.html.
This year’s “crop” includes a project to study the gut wall and internal microbial community of the desert locust, infamous since Moses’ time for the uncanny ability to consume its entire body weight in a single day; a probe into the energy produced by a strange white rot fungus that destroys plants at will; a study of the hearty microbes that thrive in Alaska’s permafrost environment; and the largest grant of the year – involving a genome of 240 million nucleotides – a probe to understand how fire moss is able to thrive in heavily disturbed soil, including that poisoned by heavy metals.
It seems that while we humans have been consumed with petty things – like the price of gas, energy independence, and Obama’s birth certificate – there have been quadrillions and quintillions of microbes around the globe, busy every second, creating energy and existing in conditions so disturbing that they can’t attract any interest – even from Wall Street!
That may have changed last week. We appear to be “catching” something.