Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Biofuel-Creating GMO Bugs

Living on Earth gets today's prize for the story that most leaves me feeling like I'm in the middle of an amazing societal transformation.

It's about efforts that are succeeding in creating highly engineered organisms that convert sunlight and CO2 to ethanol and diesel fuel.  This could be used, for example, to convert CO2 from a coal burning power plant into clean renewable fuels.

One engineered organism can make ethanol. Another makes diesel fuel. Sims envisions these panels in a sunny somewhere soaking up CO2 from a power plant, and sending a constant stream of fuel-laden water to a separation facility. He says an acre of the solar converters could produce many times what biofuel crops do.

SIMS: So there's no intermediary like cellulose or like algae that has to be grown, has to be processed as part of their process to create fuels or chemicals. We also don't require fresh water, we don't require agricultural land. We are converting CO2, and what is viewed by most people as bad into something good: renewable, clean fuel.

YOUNG: So let me see if I've got this straight. CO2, sun, your genetically tweaked organism – poof -- out the other end comes fuel?

SIMS: Yep, this is revolutionary technology, there's no doubt about it. Call it what you will, transformational, game changing, etc. But it's an entirely new way, using the power of the sun in a unique way, we aren't converting sunlight to electrons, we're converting sunlight to liquid fuels in a cost-effective manner that has essentially and unlimited supply.

As a conservation biologist, I hear about creating new organisms like this, and frankly, I worry: what happens if these fuel-producing organisms escape into the natural environment and contaminate streams, rivers, or the ocean?  Is this a risk?

I love the concept of converting waste CO2 into new clean fuels.  But I've got some serious questions about this type of technology that I need answered before I can get really excited. 

Listen to the story>>

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