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Geneticist Craig Venter says fuel from CO2 only 18 months away

by NBBooks Thu Feb 28th, 2008 at 07:06:44 PM EST

At the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, California today, pioneer geneticist Craig Venter revealed a "fourth-generation fuel" project he believes is about 18 months away from perfecting a bio-engineered life form that will produce fuel by feeding on carbon dioxide, a common waste product responsible for much of global warming.

"We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy," Venter told an audience that included Al Gore and Google co-founder Larry Page. "We think we will have fourth-generation fuels in about 18 months, with CO2 as the fuel stock."

Venter explained that the last hurdle is not designing an organism, but the difficulty of extracting high enough concentrations of CO2 from the air to produce large enough amounts of fuel to be commercially viable.

"We have 20 million genes which I call the design components of the future," Venter said. "We are limited here only by our imagination."

His team is using synthetic chromosomes to modify organisms that already exist, not making new life, he said. Organisms already exist that produce octane, but not in amounts needed to be a fuel supply.

"If they could produce things on the scale we need, this would be a methane planet," Venter said. "The scale is what is critical; which is why we need to genetically design them."

The genetics of octane-producing organisms can be tinkered with to increase the amount of CO2 they eat and octane they excrete, according to Venter.

Source: Famed geneticist creating life form that turns CO2 to fuel

I wanted to throw in my own hypothesis here that Venter's work is probably being funded by the relatively new dotcom and internet fortunes, and not by the sclerotic old money of Wall Street, which is proving itself less and less useful every day.

Replacing petroleum with man-made bugs?
. Preposterous 28%
. What if the germs get out and can't be controlled? (HINT - read story at lnk) 28%
. Probably, but there's still too many people 14%
. Oilgarchs and oligarchs will find some way to stop it 0%
. Sounds great, but let's be careful - go slow and easy 21%
. The future can't get here fast enough 7%

Votes: 14
Results | Other Polls
Here, as at DailyKos, I voted "Probably, but there's still too many people."  And was pleased to see that someone at last is providing a poll alternative that at least mentions the crux of the problem facing the biosphere!
by keikekaze on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 12:59:34 AM EST
Micro-organisms are not exempted from the laws of thermodynamics. Unless I'm mistaken, carbon reduction from CO2 into hydrocarbons requires an energy input. What are the bugs going to feed on? The article doesn't say.

You're clearly a dangerous pinko commie pragmatist.
by Vagulus on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 04:35:55 AM EST
Yup. This is a storage system, not a primary production system. On the other hand, maybe solar energy can be efficiently converted into oil this way.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 04:50:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Put me in the completely skeptic column.... it will be like solar power half century ago or the cold fussion.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 05:33:39 AM EST
I hate to be sceptical, but revolutionary organisms that turn CO2 and solar energy into burnable stuff are called plants. From what I read here, his big idea is to get organisms, presumably bacteria, to generate methane instead.

That's probably possible, but how is this automatically a big improvement over growing wood and burning it? The critical part here would be to generate more usable energy per acre and per dollar. Which somehow assumes these new organisms will be comparably efficient at producing methane as existing plants are at producing themselves.

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 05:49:39 AM EST
Actually it is possible to be more efficient than plants, using the "minimal life" concept (and what Venter actually is after, biofuel is just another market to raise cash for his toys).

It's something everybody is after in biotech, Venter is just shouting louder (he has been doing this kind of shouting as "science" throughout the genome project, where he was always first to publish the unfinished and error-laden maps).

The idea is to strip everything from the bacteria, but the basic digestion/photosynthesis/mitosis genes. It actually takes away many things: microscopic things expand a lot of energy to kill each other, defend from attacks, parasites, and even to communicate or build colonies.

If a lifeform is just to live in a vat, or a big sterile glass tube in the sunshine, it doesn't need any of this, and it could grow faster (or produce drugs faster, etc...)

Oh, just one little thingie: we are still many years away from a working minimal bacteria (of the sugar-eating, drug producing kind), so we are decades away from a photosynthetic one (which is more complex).

The very principle of these lifeforms also ridicules the claim that they might have terrible eco-impacts: if they were released, they would be killed off immediately by the much smarter "real" bugs. Actually, protecting the vat from contamination by non-methanogen or non-drug-producing parasites will probably be one of the challenges.


by Pierre on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 06:02:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, this sounds if you know a bit more about this?

Reading the article, and adjusting for marketing-buzz, it seems he thinks he can produce methane-producing bacteria somewhere in the next 18 months, that's I suppose 5 to 10 years in non-buzz time.

Am I right if I assume such a first-generation of CO2-to-methane bacteria would eat sugar to get the energy needed for the conversion? With energy from photosynthesis somewhere in the future, and efficient light-to-methane conversion even further away?

Are there actually bacteria running on photosynthesis? I thought that was limited to algae and other plant-like organisms, and that those kinds of microorganisms were a lot more complicated than bacteria?

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 07:52:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, cyanobacteria draw energy from photosynthesis.

You're clearly a dangerous pinko commie pragmatist.
by Vagulus on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 10:17:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I believe Venter's claim are pure bull shit. He has only recently claimed to have succesfully created an artificial chromosome, but the peer-review just pointed that he was pretty far off from a real synthetic bacteria (he used an existing one stripped of its nucleic acid to wrap his synthetic chromosome). So we still don't know it the thingie can really undergo the millions of mitosis required to fill up a reactor vat.

We are still years away from the simple demonstrator (that does nothing else than divide and eat sugar). We're decades from pharmaceutical applications. Biofuel application will arrive after all cars are electric or gone. Venter is only after money to toy with.

I haven't checked the thermodynamics, but I bet if you already have sugar to feed bacteria, you're better of turning it into ethanol with off-the-shelf technology. Bacteria would be useful only if it makes the fuel (whether polysaccharides or methane) from the sun or from wood (digesting cellulose). We're decades away from that. Digesting wood with GM termit symbionts would probably get to the market first. Photosynthesis of diesel through "high lipid" (optionnally GM) algae too. Venter is just a "me too" with a overly expensive pathway on these applications. He may be somewhat more efficient in the end, but he will be there 15 years later (and possibly too late for any kind of market to remain).


by Pierre on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 10:51:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Skeptical me too.

Venter's designers bugs will need a completely closed, sterile environment or they'll croak against the first yeast passing by.

Closed systems algae/bacteria biomass has been tried many times since the 70s. The latest high profile attempt is called GreenFuel and it went splat last July with the VCs firing half of the company and taking over the management to salvage what they can.

The problem is not really the bugs, it's the logistics, making the thing work in real life. Bioreactors are very prickly machines even in perfectly controlled environment like pharmaceutical labs so when you can't control the temperature and the energy input - there, the light -, it becomes a nightmare: explosive growth, die-offs, fouling ...

Plus the economics don't look truly great, just looking at power density. With a good location (300W/m2 avg over 24 h) and a mind-blowing 20% end-to-end conversion efficiency, you get 56 liters of gasoline (34 MJ/l) per year per m2 of bioreactor ground surface (300 * 3600 * 24 * 365 * 0.20 / 34,000,000). That's really not a lot to pay for a fully sterile bioreactor and all the back end, the bug processing and the CO2 capture, even co-located with a CO2 source like a coal power plant.

Unless Venter has a major breakthrough on photosynthesis efficiency and - even more important - on the system integration side of the affair, it's bullshit.

By the way, Venter has competition on the designer bug front, for instance with Solazyme. Interestingly, it looks like Solazyme is moving towards product transformation in closed reactors - bio-diesel from glucose - rather than solar bioreactors. May be Venter should take a hint.

There are also companies like LiveFuels which is trying to revisit the low-cost open-pond approach with lipid-producing algae. Crappy web site but they got $10M funding last year and they have an interesting cast.

by Francois in Paris on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 07:40:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder how this was vetted, or passed the TED screening process.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 07:51:54 AM EST
This is what the VC media is reporting. I commented on the same story, from Bloomberg in January, at PFF. It is titled "Supergene Labs Design Microbes to Change Sun to Fuel, Eat Waste ". With a jaundiced eye focused on enacted US legislation (H.R. 2828, H.R. 6) and likely returns of this particular project, following is the comment.

Actually, the story is a sell-sheet for patented processes and devices, gene-splicing and DNA synthesizer, i.e. Venter's library.

The money, honey. Here's my favorite data point in this extraordinarily long snooze item.

An older generation of drug-oriented biotech firms, squeezed by research costs and long product approvals, has suffered persistent losses even with investors' initial enthusiasm. When South San Francisco, California-based Genentech went public in 1980, its shares soared to $88 from $35 in less than an hour, a record at the time.

Through 2006, 30 years after Genentech was formed, U.S. publicly traded biotech companies as a group had never celebrated an annual profit, according to estimates from the Boston-based Ernst & Young Global Biotechnology Center. In 2006, 336 U.S. public biotech companies lost a combined $3.5 billion on revenue of $55.5 billion, falling short of the $59.5 billion in sales at Target Corp. stores that same year.

Scientific Exploits

Human Genome Sciences Inc., a company Venter helped start in 1992 to find commercial uses for discoveries at his nonprofit research lab, lost money in 36 consecutive quarters through Sept. 30. [2007] Showing the hazards of DNA-based investing, Human Genome Sciences hasn't had a drug product reach the market since its debut.

All the same, Venter has gained celebrity for scientific exploits such as decoding human DNA in a virtual tie with the U.S. government's Human Genome Project, which had an eight-year head start.

The article does mention that VC expect growth from foreign sales.

In brief, money goes in and only comes out in the form of license fees for further research. The fact that investors around the world were no less interested in corn and sugar biofuel development means simply that Venter et al. will turn any trick in the book to raise cash. That includes rolling out"global warming fighter Al Gore and Google co-founder Larry Page." Notice neither is paying "stakeholders" dividends.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Fri Feb 29th, 2008 at 09:37:30 AM EST

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