Scientists in South Korea announced a major breakthrough this week in the hunt for alternative sources of fuel: they've managed, for the first time, to synthesize gasoline by using Escherichia coli (yes, the very same bacteria that's native to your gut and responsible for a great deal of food poisoning).
As the Wall Street Journal reports, their process started with genetically modified E. Coli which the researchers fed with glucose. The bacteria then produced enzymes to break the sugar down into fatty acids, which were converted into hydrocarbons identical to those found in commercial gasoline.
“The gasoline we’re generating could be used in your car," Lee Sang-yup, one of the lead authors, told the Journal. "It has identical composition and chemical properties to conventional petrol."
It's still early days for their process, however; at present, they're able to produce only 580 mg of gasoline per hour, from about a litre of glucose culture. And as the Journal points out, Lee's team is not the first to exploit E. Coli to create fuel: a British team turned to the bacteria to make biodiesel earlier this year. It is, however, the first to use the bacteria to make ordinary gasoline.
Earlier this month, we told you about an effort out of the University of Cincinnati to turn used-up coffee grounds into fuel. Part of the motivation for that project was to find bio-material for fuel production that wouldn't otherwise be used for food. But in the case of this E. Coli-produced fuel, the glucose that starts the process in motion is often extracted from plant crops.
Lee's response to that concern: "I know there’s the food-versus-fuel controversy. But I don’t buy that argument. There are tons of biomass which are being wasted on earth. There are a lot of biomass we can smartly use ... You can generate energy without harming the food chain or the environment."