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Oil Producing Bacteria: More Biofuel Hype April 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Oh for crying out loud.  Another group is publicizing research about using microorganisms to make petroleum.  This time its out of the University of Minnesota and funded by the Department of Energy.  This time the twist is that the team is using a two step process involving two types of bacteria to make the fuel.

The U of M team is using Synechococcus, a bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight and converts CO2 to sugars. Next, they feed the sugars to Shewanella, a bacterium that produces hydrocarbons. This turns CO2, a greenhouse gas produced by combustion of fossil fuel petroleum, into hydrocarbons.

Okay, this is the third bacterial biofuel story I’ve commented on in the last two weeks so let me take this opportunity to summarize my position.  I am supportive of this kind of technology.  It’s an elegant answer to some of our current energy problem and could provide a sustainable source of fuel well after fossil fuels become to difficult to extract.  It’s an attempt to look beyond petroleum and utilize technology to meet our growing needs and for that I applaud it.

That being said it is not, I repeat NOT, a final solution.  Oil usage is only going to increase in the future, especially if techniques like this can make it cheaply, and as such our addiction to oil will only be strengthened not broken by this technology.  More importantly though is the fact that no one involved with this research seems to understand its implications for climate change.

“There is enormous interest in using carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbon fuels,” Wackett says. “CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment. It’s also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.”

Let me be blunt.  This does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Every molecule taken up by these bacteria will be released right back as the fuel is burned.  At the very best if we managed to switch over all current oil use to this kind of production (not likely) we would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a new, higher baseline.  The climate will continue to warm, the oceans will continue to acidify and we will continue having to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What this technology is, and what people need to realize it is, is a stopgap measure.  It will buy us time to come up with a real solution to our problem but is not a solution itself.  That solution needs to involve two things: transitioning to a type of energy that is completely divorced from the carbon cycle like wind, solar or nuclear and finding a way to take up atmospheric CO2 and hold it in an inorganic form that will not cycle through the environment.  Without fulfilling those criteria we will not solve our problem, only delay it.

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Comments»

1. Daryl ZenRider Meissner - April 1, 2012

If the bacteria are eating the same volume of co2 their oil production causes then this is at least carbon neutral. Even if it is half it is better than current oil production and consumption. EIther way, the reality is if these companies can find a way to cheaply produce biodiesel, if only temporarily, it will buy more time for other alternatives to be developed.

You may not remember this but about 30 years ago, when pollution in Los Angeles was at its absolute worst. When coal and oil consumption was so bad and when cfcs were allegedly making a hole in the ozone layer, the so-called experts were predicting that we were entering a mini ice age. Then 15 to 25 years later we are in the middle of global warming… In the 15 years since the ice age (very cold that year) co2 emissions went down… so how could we be causing global warming?

The answer is we can’t. We are not causing climate change. The Earth goes through hot and cold cycles all the time and there is nothing we can do to stop it. If you believe reducing CO2 will somehow save the planet, thats fine… I think the end justifies the means since reducing CO2 would inevitably reduce our dependence on oil… but the reality is there is NO OTHER means for society to continue as is (read anarchy) if we do not have a fuel supply that directly replaces oil for now until something new comes along.

2. Guy Natav - January 1, 2013

copnsidering the fact that I had not seen a single article that will prove that we really understand the way our enviroment manages it’s co2 and oxygen levels, with a view of it’s levels for more then just the last 200 years, I don’t see any basis for this article, or it’s claims other then the infamous axiom “because somebody said it”.
a new relative in the family of axioms which include the oldie “something somebody told me in the pub last night”…


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