Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fill 'er up with bug poop!

The above picture is of a jar of diesel produced from the waste of genetically modified bugs. The Times has the lowdown:
“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”
He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.
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.
Too good to be true? I wonder. If you read the rest of the article, LS9 is planning to have a demo production facility up and running in a couple years, followed - they hope - within a year by a commercial facility. If it doesn't create the problems that other types of "biofuel" cause - such as taking food off the dinner table in order to fill up SUV tanks - all the better. When one realizes that an economy that has run on cheap energy can show signs of strain at $120-$140 per barrel oil, and could easily collapse once that price tag gets significantly above, say, $200 per barrel, I suppose it makes sense to look for hope where one can find it. Like anything else, I'll believe it when I see it.

Oh, and on a somewhat related tangent, I found an article on the first electric cars, which were apparently operating in - get this - the 1830s. You read that correctly. Also, it's worth mentioning that Congress took a very small step in the right direction with regard to Amtrak (h/t Leanan at The Oil Drum). If I had one piece of advice for how the government could make itself useful for the next few years it would be this: stop wasting money on maintaining an empire (in other words, end these damned wars, start closing up the 700 plus military bases throughout the planet, etc.), and instead renovate the US infrastructure. In particular, the there is no reason why the US shouldn't have the sort of rail service that is taken for granted in Europe. If the nation is going to go bankrupt any way, we might as well have something to show for it. The ability to still be able to travel from point A to point B would serve the public much better than fading memories of failed wars. Saying that is not particularly PC, but from my perspective we simply don't have the luxury of walking on eggshells when it comes to US nationalistic and militaristic sensibilities.

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