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Biotech Power Science

Synthetic Biology For Natural Fuel 245

Posted by kdawson
from the powering-up-smart-bugs dept.
CoolBeans writes "Making ethanol is easy. Making enough ethanol to fill every gas tank in a developed country is tricky. The Department of Energy has promised $125 million to the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a team of six national labs and universities that will be run like a startup company. They intend to create new life forms that are optimized for alcohol production. The genes of crops that produce large amounts of cellulose will be tweaked to improve the yield per acre and to increase drought and pest resistance. Microbes that produce sugar from cellulose and ethanol from sugar will be built for speed and efficiency." The article mentions as an aside that earlier this year, "the energy giant BP gave $500 million to Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley lab, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for similar alternative energy research. That gift will fund the Energy Biosciences Institute, which will operate separately from the JBEI." So UC Berkeley and LBL are both participating in two separate energy-biotech research programs.
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Synthetic Biology For Natural Fuel

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  • Why Ethanol? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Azuma Hazuki (955769) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:16PM (#19736631)
    Seriously, why? Why bother with all this expensive "synthetic biology" or (worse) growing and using perfectly good corn to make something that's less effective than gasoline when you can just grow an imperial fuckton of algae, render them down for biofuel, and use that? Carbon neutral, and you get something more akin to good ol' diesel fuel than ethanol.

    Plus there's some incentive to clean up eutrophicated bodies of water this way because, hey, that's profit floating on the top!
    • Answers (Score:5, Insightful)

      by goombah99 (560566) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:34PM (#19736827)
      Why Ethanol? Simple
      1) we have the infrastructure to use it immediately.
      2) It's not corrosive or particularly toxic.
      3) unlike algae it's grown by agricultiure so Archer Daniels Midland can get their cut of the pie.

      the latter is probably the most defining reason.

      But I think ethanol may be the wrong ticket. Obviously corn ethanol is a bad idea. But even cellulosic ethanol may be a bad idea.

      two reasons:
      1) Now matter how you produce it, evenif a miracle in effciency happened, at the end of the process any ethanol produced is going to be dissolved in water. Drying it out is going to eat the efficiency.

      2) Cellulose and Ligno-cellulose is desinged by trees to be indigestible and energetically inaccessible. If it were easy to digest the bacteria and termites would have eaten the whole forest a long time ago. Trees would not be huge cellulose containers. That should be a clue.

      Now it is true that man made enzymes can in some instances beat natural ones by an order of magnitude of more. But this is one place where nature has had a lot of different creatures all working on the same problem independently for quite some time.

      One the other hand it's almost commerically viable now. So we only need maybe a factor of ten improvement to open up wide spread production. However then other scaling issues will raise their heads. Farmland will be used. in many case it will be existing farm waste, but in others, say poplar trees, it will be for non-edible products. And if we try to open up new farmlands to compensate then were back to having a water budget problem.

      Algae making diesel would seem to bypass a lot of these problem. It can be grown off croplands, in many cases using sea water or brackish water. And it's easy to separate the oils from the water. the product has a higher energy value than Ethanol per volume and per weight. And it does not produce as much toxic waste in the production process (ethanol uses acid treatment and produces loads of crap to dispose of).

      • Re:Answers (Score:4, Informative)

        by Chandon Seldon (43083) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @07:12PM (#19737209) Homepage

        1) we have the infrastructure to use it immediately.

        We've got the infrastructure to distribute diesel fuel directly - and existing diesel engines can run on high quality commercial biodiesel with no modification at all; you can treat such biodiesel exactly like traditional diesel fuel.

        2) It's not corrosive or particularly toxic.

        I guess diesel fuel is a bit more toxic than ethanol, but it's nothing we haven't been dealing with for a very long time.

        3) unlike algae it's grown by agricultiure so Archer Daniels Midland can get their cut of the pie.

        This is the main reason, and it's a big mistake to let them turn subsidized food into fuel inefficiently. The algae to biodiesel process takes *no* food land and produces much higher energy density fuel through a much more efficient process.

        • There's also the bit where properly maintained diesel engines are virtually indestructible, which is likely why American auto manufacturers haven't been too keen on them.

          That said, they DO produce some nasty emissions. Even though it'd be carbon-neutral, diesel exhaust is rather unpleasant.

          I imagine that we'll end up settling on biodiesel being used in some markets, and ethanol in others. Of course, if the costs of production are the same (or comparable), biodiesel will win out, simply because of its gre
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by ChrisMaple (607946)
            Diesel engines are more expensive than gasoline engines, which is one reason that they aren't popular with the buying public. Another is that they're slow to start in cold weather. Body rot and other mechanical failures can make a car useless before the engine fails; this reduces the value of a highly durable engine. The manufacturers are happy to build them if people will buy them and the government allows it.
        • by goombah99 (560566)
          No we don't have the infrastructure to use diesel. That would require replacing all of our fleet. that's not an instantaneous result. However that's admittedly not a great argument either since no matter what we go with we phase it in. it's just easier to phase in ethanol or so it is believed.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by e3kmouse (1123601)
        Ya, but why not electric (hybrid + plug-in hybrid). I still haven't heard a good argument why this isn't "THE" way to go for our automobile fuel. The "well then it runs on Coal" argument doesn't really float, especially if you live in a state like Idaho or California. They are being mass produced NOW... I don't see why we can't just pursue better battery technologies and call it good... really.
        • by Dan Ost (415913)
          Two words: energy density. At least for the short-term.

          In the long-term, who knows? If ultracaps can get us 240 miles and then only require 6 minutes to recharge for another 240 miles, I think that would do it. Hell, 40 miles on a 6 minute charge would meet the needs of many commuters and soccer moms.

          Most days I commute less than 15 miles round-trip, so if I could get 40 miles on an 8-hour charge, a plug-in hybrid would be fine for me. If it was cheap enough, I'd buy one now.
      • by Bagheera (71311)
        One and Two are mostly right though in an automotive fuel system pure ethanol requires some extensive modifications to most existing vehicles (It's corrosive to a number of materials used in an engine). Not all vehicles are "Flex Fuel" and those that are are designed for no more than 85% Ethanol in the mix.

        Point three, I suspect you are absolutely dead on. The whole Ethanol as Fuel culture revolves around agribusiness getting their slice of the pie, whether or not Ethanol is worth crap as a fuel or not.

        Wh
      • by TimToady (52230)
        Obviously the best thing would be to engineer the car to run on cellulose directly, like some of the early cars did. :-)
      • Cool, but how do you sneak this by the folks lobbying to outlaw genetically modified anything from ever being introduced into anywhere for any reason?
    • by timmarhy (659436)
      "growing and using perfectly good corn "

      you didn't even read the damn headline did you, you twat. they are developing new non food varities of plants to produce, corn wasn't even mentioned you idiot.

    • by jstomel (985001)

      Seriously, why? Why bother with all this expensive "synthetic biology" or (worse) growing and using perfectly good corn to make something that's less effective than gasoline when you can just grow an imperial fuckton of algae, render them down for biofuel, and use that? Carbon neutral, and you get something more akin to good ol' diesel fuel than ethanol.

      We are doing that. Why not do this too? Why carry all your eggs in one basket? Besides, you make it sound like biofuel from algae is easy. I know people who work in this field and the fact is that algae don't contain enough convertable lipids to make harvesting biofuel from them viable at large scales. There are people working to engineer strains of algae with a higher lipid content, but it will probably take at least as much engineering as what this project proposes.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      when you can just grow an imperial fuckton of algae, render them down for biofuel, and use that?

      Saying we should "just grow [...] algae" for fuel is a lot like saying to hell with building new roads, we should just build flying cars...

      There have been numerous and extensive attempts to make use of algae... It has never worked out. There's tremendous potential there if we can figure out how to make it work, but so far, nobody has.
      • by Glonoinha (587375)
        (Note - the folling post curiously lacking in hard facts, unlike most of my posts.)

        There was a report a few months ago harping on about bubbling the factory exhaust from smokestacks through algae water, which seemed to have an explosive growth effect on the algae. I recall none of the actual facts, other than a) it cleaned the bad stuff out of the smokestack exhaust before pumping it into the air (a good thing), and b) the algae just loved it and grew like wildfire (which is also good.)

        The substantiation o
    • by Glonoinha (587375) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @07:19PM (#19737269) Journal
      Won't someone please think of the algae?
    • The algae projects underway use concentrated CO2 to boost efficiency (gal/arce produced) so that they provide a second use of the carbon, but they are not carbon neutral because they rely on the use of fossil fuels for production. The GreenFuel pilot plant in AZ (about 0.3 acre) is getting 40% capture of CO2 according the Gary Leung who is with the company: http://www.greenfuelonline.com/ [greenfuelonline.com]. This all fine while we burn fossil fuels, but there will be a need to either do better with a 380 ppm atmospheric con
  • More information (Score:4, Informative)

    by RobinH (124750) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:19PM (#19736665) Homepage
    There's a company in Ottawa that's working on cellulose ethanol as well. The company is Iogen Corporation [iogen.ca]. They have information on the process [iogen.ca] too. I first heard about them when I was at a Master Brewers Association of the Americas event, and there was a guest speaker from Iogen who talked about the similarities between ethanol production and brewing (i.e. some of the industry knowledge is transferrable).
    • by pipingguy (566974) *
      At least the piping, pumps and vessels won't have to be food-grade clean. I worked for a Montreal-based engineering firm a couple of years ago that was involved with this technology (I think there's a pilot plan, they would get involved for the commercial plant).
    • by Dare nMc (468959)

      who talked about the similarities between ethanol production and brewing

      also a great way to bypass laws on selling alcohol to minors. IE pump it all into their gas tanks, just cause they got a keg tap in the tank.
  • by Kadin2048 (468275) * <[slashdot.kadin] [at] [xoxy.net]> on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:19PM (#19736669) Homepage Journal
    As much as I'm supportive of any program that might, conceivably, provide a partial alternative to our petroleum addiction, I have seen several pieces lately about ethanol vs. biodiesel, which seem to indicate that biodiesel is a much more realistic alternative to gasoline than ethanol is, but that its major shortcoming is that it doesn't reward corn production.

    While I don't have the background to really comment or hold an opinion one way or another, I just think it's a mistake to look too hard for "one solution" that we need to put all our money and hopes in. We need to be looking all over the place, and we need to realize that the final solution might not involve all the cars in the country running on the same fuel. There might be certain fuels that are preferable in certain regions or for certain types of vehicles, and although it might fundamentally alter the transportation network and your ability to drive one vehicle anywhere, that might not be a terrible outcome.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by evilviper (135110)

      I have seen several pieces lately about ethanol vs. biodiesel, which seem to indicate that biodiesel is a much more realistic alternative to gasoline than ethanol is,

      On what planet is an incompatible fuel with a slightly higher yeild "a much more realistic alternative"? You believe we should force everyone across the country to throw away their old cars and trucks, buy new ones with diesel engines, so that we can provide just slightly more fuel?

      Neither option is a long term solution... it's just an effort

      • Have you tried to watch Who Killed the Electric Car?
        Fully electric cars are very realistic. For a brief period, they were done commercially. But it's politically improbable to restart that program. Oil companies don't want too many new competitors--or classic publicly-funded competitors--selling fuel, and car companies don't want too many new companies selling cars...
        Hydrogen still requires refining and pumps, so it doesn't bother the oil cos. so much. And it still has to be burned, so it doesn't bot
      • It seems unlikely that biodiesel would all of a sudden start being produced in immense quantities while petrol suddenly disappears. Cheap, available biodiesel might help people buying a new cars consider diesel which is a step in the right direction.

        It is not as if ethanol is magically "compatible" with the majority of cars already on the road. My car won't take E10 let alone something with a significant ethanol component.

        There are no magic fixes. All solutions will take time to have an impact and no
    • I just think it's a mistake to look too hard for "one solution" that we need to put all our money and hopes in.

      Unless that solution is solar power. You don't have to look too hard to see that all the other (as long as we're confined to Earth) methods are basically indirect use of solar energy.

    • As much as I'm supportive of any program that might, conceivably, provide a partial alternative to our petroleum addiction, I have seen several pieces lately about ethanol vs. biodiesel, which seem to indicate that biodiesel is a much more realistic alternative to gasoline than ethanol is, but that its major shortcoming is that it doesn't reward corn production.

      It's not so much ADM alone that's the problem. They probably don't care whether you make ethanol or corn oil out of their corn. I'm sure they'll

    • by MtViewGuy (197597) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @09:54PM (#19738753)
      Actually, the biodiesel route is a far more practical one because most diesel engines only need minor modifications for run biodiesel fuel. With modern particulate traps, new exhaust catalyst designs to reduce NOx output, and urea gas injection to reduce NOx output even further, today's diesel engines with their common-rail pressurized direct fuel injection are quiet, powerful and don't generate the bad exhaust of older diesel engines. Also, diesel fuel is full compatible with the current fuel distribution network for gasoline/diesel fuel, which is not true for delivery of E85 fuel and hydrogen for fuel cells.

      For example, the new BMW 123d hatchback/coupé just announced now offers a 200 ps (197 bhp) dual-turbo turbodiesel engine that gives the car true high performance, yet can get around 40 mpg in normal limited-access motorway driving in the 100-120 km/h (62-75 mph) range. With today's new emission controls, that same engine could probably meet even the stringent EPA Tier 2 Bin 5 emission standard for automobile engines; the new Euro 5 emission rules will be similar to this EPA standard.
  • by Twixter (662877) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:20PM (#19736675) Homepage
    If BP and other large energy companies fund this type of research because they know it won't ever be practical to grow gasoline. Even the most efficient converters from sunlight to sugar or ethanol aren't even close to what we have for solar cells. Granted, its cheaper to plant grass then build solar farms, but fixed cost will be nominal in the long run.

    With Ethonal BP can make money with its current infrastructure, keep positive press about their company, and develop alternatives that will never truly be able to replace fossil fuels.

    • by Rycross (836649) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:31PM (#19736797)
      BP also invests in solar. No doubt that there are a lot of scum at oil companies (particularly Exxon), but BP at least seems to see the writing on the wall. They're doing it to secure their future profits and pr, but thats ok as long as they're steadily lowering their contribution to the problem.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mothlos (832302)
      Mod parent up!

      BP is taking advantage of the political benefits of ethanol as transportation fuel. Politicians are winning over votes of corn growers by inflating the price of their crop and making them feel useful in solving a national problem. BP is positioning itself with this important constituancy with a huge advertizement campaign. I want to rip out my hair every time I see that ignorant farm kid talking about powering crap and growing it back in a year.

      Learn a little bit about how agriculture works an
    • by NMerriam (15122)

      If BP and other large energy companies fund this type of research because they know it won't ever be practical

      Well, ultimately it's a form of hedging their bets. They get a huge tax writeoff for all the research, which is useful when oil companies are making profits that would make 19th century robber-barons feel guilty, and at the same time grabbing up as many patents and experts as they can in alternative fuels so that -- heaven forbid -- one should be developed that truly replaces their core market, th

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        "oil companies are making profits that would make 19th century robber-barons feel guilty" If 19th Century robber barons had made the same return on investment that oil companies are, they would have disappeared without a trace. Yes, the oil companies are making huge amounts of money, but they are investing huge amounts of money as well. I don't know of any industry where the return, dollar of profit for dollar of investment is not higher than the oil industry. Of course, it is next to impossible to lose mon
    • by timmarhy (659436)
      solar is a useless energy producer for anything other then remote stations which have no other choice.

      you can't just turn the sun on when you need it is the first problem, 2nd is the fact the batteries requried are highly toxic and the 3rd is the cost only just breaks even over the life of the solar cells - hardly a cost effective solution.

    • by pilgrim23 (716938)
      It seems to me...you can't feed the world and the gas tank on the same hectare of crops. Its either feed the starving in (fill in where they are starving this cycle) or fill it and no don't check the tires.
      As to bio-diesel.....has anyone ever tried to start a engine when the gas tank is filled with congealed pig fat on a brisk winter morning in Alaska?
    • by Ironsides (739422)
      Even the most efficient converters from sunlight to sugar or ethanol aren't even close to what we have for solar cells.

      Yeah, but if it costs half as much per end unit of energy as solar cells, it's still more cost effective. Solar cells DO wear out after time. Bacteria is self reproducing.

      With Ethonal BP can make money with its current infrastructure, keep positive press about their company, and develop alternatives that will never truly be able to replace fossil fuels.


      Solar panels, while a good
    • by mdsolar (1045926)
      As of last May, BP had 40 US employees in biofuels. They had a rep at the conference I reported on here: http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/05/juicing.html [blogspot.com]. They'll be happy to blend in some biofuels I think. They have to already is some places to control pollution. BP also makes solar cells. Algae comes close to silicon for energy conversion, but then you run the biofuel through a heat engine and lose 70%. Remember that when you are thinking of alternatives, with solar and wind you only need to replace
  • theres more too (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    They also have a patent on an organism that makes ethanol and acetic acid from watergas [CO,H2 and CO2] which can more easily be synthesized without using plants to make the biomass required for normal ethanol production. ethanol is normally biosynthesized by converting glucose=>pyruvate=>ethanol which allows for making 2 ethanol molecules for every glucose used. the glucose is the big problem with ethanol production from biomass. plants are efficient at converting light energy into an immediate so
  • Ok, assuming the federal should be funding this sort of research*, why pay out grants? We should take advantage of the natural benefits of competition; pay $X to the organization that reaches a specific milestone.

    *I don't see why it should be. The energy market is so large, there seems like more than enough incentive for innovation.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wsherman (154283) *

      ...why pay out grants? We should take advantage of the natural benefits of competition; pay $X to the organization that reaches a specific milestone.

      Grants are already quite competitive but let's try some numbers.

      Let's say that it take $1 million to achieve a particular milestone and that there are 10 organizations that each have a roughly equal chance of achieving the milestone first. In order to provide adequate incentive, the payout for the prize will have to be $10 million (plus a risk premium - but we

      • Your calculations neglect several factors, one of which you mentioned yourself.

        1) The reward in your scenario is not merely the $1 million. It is $1 million + the value of the media coverage + the value of the IP.

        2) In the grant scenario, you're assuming omniscience on the part of the grantor. $1 million spent will only yield $1 million in research if:
        - The grantor spends $0 determining the best organization
        - The grantor is 100% successful

        3) You're a
    • The energy market is large, but most of the big players are oil companies. Your method might work for things like the article's new methods for ethanol--$X million and flattering press might be enough. But for more radical ideas (think of practical solar-powered cars), you'll likely need grants to get the people most interested in those innovations the money to work toward those innovations.
      • Your method might work for things like the article's new methods for ethanol--$X million and flattering press might be enough

        That is, after all, today's topic.

        But for more radical ideas (think of practical solar-powered cars), you'll likely need grants to get the people most interested in those innovations the money to work toward those innovations.

        If the reward is high enough, you could compel someone to develop the most useless of devices. You are correct, though, that you can greatly reduce your out-of-t

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by wsherman (154283) *

      Ok, assuming the federal should be funding this sort of research*,...
      *I don't see why it should be. The energy market is so large, there seems like more than enough incentive for innovation.

      Well, in practice it can be quite difficult to reward innovation in a meaningful way. The current practice is for the government to impose artificial monopolies (patents, copyrights, etc.) but it's difficult to determine in a natural way how severe the monopoly should be.

      Should the monopoly last 10 years or 100 years? S

      • Your reasoning argues for a competitive process; hear me out.

        The founder of the competition may set any terms it is legally authorized to set. These terms will contain, among other things, what, if any, rights the winner has to the IP. If the total reward package is sufficient, someone will pursue it hard enough to accomplish it. If not, the founder will end up reconsidering its offer.

        Thus, even if you wish to reserve the IP for the public domain, you can still take advantage of competitive forces by sweete
  • When will we see some fringe group shouting and marching against "Frankenfuel"?

    (seriously - I love the idea, but you and I both know it's gonna happen...)

    As a (partial) tangent, what safety measures are they looking to put in place to prevent some sort of biological 'oopsie' that may have unintended (read: "Bad") consequences?

    /P

    • I thought those protests already happened, back when they tried to put methanol in some gasoline blends...
      I imagine they'll use the same safeguards with the sawgrass for ethanol that they do with Monsanto's new varieties of corn. [sardonic grin]
      (Anyone dare imagine what would happen if Monsanto's "terminator" gene spread to more natural varieties of corn? I mean other than patent violations...)
      • by russotto (537200)

        (Anyone dare imagine what would happen if Monsanto's "terminator" gene spread to more natural varieties of corn? I mean other than patent violations...)
        That particular hybrid would fail to germinate. Which is actually exactly what Monsanto wants to happen.
  • Creating life (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stinkwinkerton (609110) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:25PM (#19736731)
    I guess what is freaking me out on this (probably too much science fiction) is the whole "creating new life" thing. I don't consider myself a deeply religious guy, so it isn't that. It is more along the lines of the fact that we can barely understand what is going on with the life that CURRENTLY exists. That, and and the potential for this new type of life to make it into the ecosystem with unknown ramifications. Kind of like when a species from another continent hitches a ride on a cargo ship or something and decimates the native species. I realize that there is nothing we can do to stop the wheels of progress, I just wish there were a common code of ethics that was enforceable but not constraining to research and development. What a conundrum!
    • by JDevers (83155)
      Trust me, new life forms are created constantly in labs across the country. Mostly they just have a few genes inserted to produce some novel product or more of a product than they already produce...much like these will do. Bioreactors are really cool and many of the processes use modified life forms.
    • by ghoul (157158)
      Lets create a human sugarcane hybrid so humans can convert McDonalds burgers into pure alcohol urine. Then everyone driving an SUV could sit in their drivers seat and pee their way to wherever they want. Solving the global warming and obesity problem at the same time !!!!
  • by Hubbell (850646) <brianhubbellii@nOSPam.live.com> on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:27PM (#19736745)
    More ethanol can be obtained from it than from corn and it is also a weed, so it can grow ANYWHERE. It produced 5-10x as much pulp as regular trees do so the paper industry could profit from them, and hemp ropes are what make the shipping industry possible, or atleast did back years ago.
    • by iminplaya (723125) <iminplaya.gmail@com> on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:52PM (#19737019) Journal
      But corn is more politically connected. You could say it has the politicians' ear.
    • Yes, but it'll be difficult to fund making ethanol from a plant which is illegal to grow on purpose.
      You can't even get pseudoephedrine in legit cold medicines in my home state without signing papers, simply because of homemade meth. How are you going to convince governments like this to legalize growing hemp for fuel, or any other practical use, when it can always be used for the recreational use?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jhines (82154)
      Actually, the pressed seed gives oil that is very much like like diesel, and was considered by Ford and others before WW2.
    • The version I am familiar with is an acre of hemp producing as much as 4 acres of trees. My question is always: are we talking about the same acre of land? Or are we comparing Ohio farmland with Oregon forest land? What kind of trees? A lot of forest production in the western U.S. is on land too steep or rocky to be cultivated and planted with an annual crop. Even in your hybrid poplar production systems proposed for riparian areas, we are talking about land that we don't want to be tilling every year fo
  • Brazil, anyone? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SuperBanana (662181) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:28PM (#19736753)

    Making ethanol is easy. Making enough ethanol to fill every gas tank in a developed country is tricky.

    So...Brazil [wikipedia.org] isn't a developed country? 40% of the gas used by *cars* comes from Ethanol [wikipedia.org] (they actually import oil because of diesel and petrochemical needs.) They do it with cane sugar.

    The reason we don't have cheap ethanol, and why corn prices are skyrocketing, is because corn is almost *the* worst way to make ethanol. Corn, however, is what the midwest does, and only what the midwest does. The earliest primaries are in...guess where...the midwest (well, not so much any more, thank god.) The government forks over billions to farmers and farm corporations because it buys votes. Corn is what livestock are fed, not grass. High fructose corn syrup, which is quite bad for you (compared to regular sugar) is in damn near everything because it's cheaper than sugar (which, incidentally, is price fixed. Sugar is *dirt* cheap on the world market, but to protect a fairly small contingent of sugar farmers in the US, the feds price-control it.)

    By the way, Bush's favorite line is "reducing our foreign dependency on oil." Guess what? We already get our oil from a rather diverse group [doe.gov], and half of our oil comes from domestic sources.

    Last fun fact. Think your Prius is helping with that pesky foreign oil "problem", or (laughs) that you're "fighting terrorism"? Think again. Transportation only accounts for less than one percent of US oil consumption. [doe.gov]

    • Natural Gas != Oil (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That link that you gave is not for oil, but rather natural gas.

      While it is true that many people do not realize that transportation is only one part of the pie with gas consumption, it is far more than 1%. According to this link [wri.org], in 1998 it was 24%. While it is true that items such as power generation use more oil than transportation, a Prius or two still does help.

    • Will you stop bring meaningful facts into a /. discussion. There are folks here that just know what this topic is all about and they don't need your DOE facts to cloud the issue.

      Next you'll be pointing out problems with the global warming lobby and then where will we be.

      No, I like my /. full of ill reasoned arguments and plenty of shouting, we have to have more shouting round here.
    • That one percent was referring to natural gas. If you go down to the section titled - Transportation Uses Lead Growth in Liquid Fuels Consumption - you will see it says: Most of the increase is in the transportation sector, which is projected to account for 73 percent of total liquid fuels consumption in 2030, up from 67 percent in 2005 (Figure 82).

      A country full of Priuses for people going to and from work would make a difference. I still think rechargeable electrics will eventually win.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by SEE (7681)
      So...Brazil isn't a developed country?

      Er, no, it isn't.

      See the full list of developed/advanced countries. Do you see Brazil? [wikipedia.org]

      To double check, we can look in terms of per capita PPP GDP [cia.gov]. Brazil is $8,800, while Australia is $33,300, France is $31,100, Germany is $31,900, Italy is $30,200, and Japan is $33,100.

      To cross-check the GDP numbers, let's consider transportation and communications development, data from the 2007 World Almanac and Book of Facts. There are 80 personal vehicles per 1000 people in Braz
  • One of the problems with generating ethanol from biomasses is that most yeasts don't convert xylose and/or aribinose very well, if at all. And they make up, up to 30% of the fermentable sugar (depending on the plant).

    It's only in the last 5~10 years that any serious research was done towards creating bacteria that is useful/economical on an industrial scale. I think there is one or two companies that have viable commercial products already on the market.

    I imagine the future of those lines of research will d
    • by thethibs (882667)

      It's only in the last 5~10 years that any serious research was done towards creating bacteria that is useful/economical on an industrial scale.

      Ever heard of beer?—or cheese?

      • Perhaps he meant that it's only been that long that people have researched mass-producing bacteria with the bacteria in mind.
        Incidentally, I don't believe beer and bacteria mix well. Beer needs yeast.
  • Could it be that maybe there are plants already here that can do what we want them to? I seem to recall certain algae strains being fifty percent plant oil by volume, with other strains producing comparable amounts of cellulose. Why go to the trouble of engineering synthetic life forms (which could pose a tremendous environmental risk) when we could just try to find ways to grow enough algae to generate large quantities of fuel instead? The last I heard, certain strains of algae could realistically yield up
  • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @06:42PM (#19736931) Homepage Journal
    >> life forms that are optimized for alcohol production

    My brother in law is optimized for alcohol consumption. Perhaps they could just reverse his genetic code.


  • I thought the whole point of environmentally friendly fuel was to reduce carbon emissions. Ok so ethanol burns cleaner its still carbon based. Correct me if i'm wrong here. Why aren't we trying to invest in feasabel ways to produce hydrogen or some other truly clean burning fuel ?
    • by TheMeuge (645043) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @07:10PM (#19737199)
      Because grown ethanol is carbon-neutral. You burn the fuel, CO2 is emitted, plants fix CO2 into carbohydrates via photosynthesis... you make ethanol out of these plants, and burn it, emitting CO2. Rinse and repeat.

      Just like nearly every other system on the face of the Earth, it's just another way of using solar power.
      • by esampson (223745)
        Technically ethanol production (or any other form of biofuel) could even be carbon negative. You will never convert 100% of the biomass into fuel so some of the carbon that the biomass has taken out of the air won't be returned to the air as the fuel is burned.
        • by Dan Ost (415913)
          Unless you turn it into charcoal, the remainder will rot and the carbon will be released back into the atmosphere.
    • by Ironsides (739422)
      Hydrogen, while clean burning, has other problems. Primarily, storage. Hydrogen Gas will leak through anything. The best thing for storage I have seen so far was using aluminum to react with water to separate the hydrogen out. Even that still has some way to go.

      Ethanol works without having to change out the entire system. In the end, it's probably going to be a combination of things that replaces gasoline.
    • by jstomel (985001)
      The problem is that after 10 years of some of the best minds thinking about this problem, we have yet to come up with a viable scheme for making H2 that doesn't involve putting in more energy then you will eventually get out of it. On the other hand, we know how to do this ethanol thing and it looks like it will be relatively easy. So lets do that while we're waiting for someone to solve the H2 problem. It's not like we're stopping hydrogen research in this country to work on ethanol. Also, ethanol is c
  • by ameline (771895) <ian...ameline@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @07:11PM (#19737207) Homepage Journal
    >They intend to create new life forms that are optimized for alcohol production.

    That's perfect, seeing as how I'm optimized for alcohol consumption :-) Everything is falling into place.

  • Damn! (Score:3, Funny)

    by frank_adrian314159 (469671) on Tuesday July 03, 2007 @07:15PM (#19737227) Homepage
    They intend to create new life forms that are optimized for alcohol production. "Microbes that produce ethanol from sugar will be built for speed and efficiency."

    Damn! And here I am built for consuming ethanol with speed and efficiency! And not even a microbe, either.

  • ... just can't quite pull it from the back of my mind. Just laugh and believe I did.
  • A worthy goal, albeit not a new one; calling it by a new name ("synthetic biology") won't make it any easier than when people used to call it "genetic engineering".
  • Back to making sugar, I guess.... http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6266712.stm [bbc.co.uk] They were said to be working in inhumane conditions on a sugar cane plantation in the Amazon. An ethanol-producing company which owns the plantation has denied allegations of abusing the workers. Human rights and labour organisations believe that between 25,000 to 40,000 people could be working in conditions akin to slavery in Brazil. Many farmers in the Amazon region who incur debts are forced to work virtually for free
    • If you have debt you pay it back. If you dont have money you work it off. Stop sensationalizing it by calling it slavery. Its no different than paying off million dollar houses in San Jose over 40 years. Its just another way of living beyond your means. Left to themselves most third world farmers would starve in a year as that is the xtent of their means- getting food to live for 40 years is living beyond their means for them. Sucks but thats capitalism. If you dont like it you should vote for the Communist
  • I'm hopeful that this becomes practical because, as a progressive, I want to see individuals at all income levels to be enabled to meet their personal transportation needs. There are some folks who call themselves progressive who want to use governmental force to coerce individuals out of personal cars and into mass transit. That's not progressive at all. In that Utopia, only the rich will have access to personal transportation. That's regressive.

    So, funding research into affordable alternatives to gas
  • If we are going the genetic engineering route why not just genengineer Sugarcane to grow where corn grows? Sugarcane based Ethanol is a proven technology in Brazil. For that matter while we are playing god why not just genengineer humans to be able to run as fast as cars so we can just run everywhere . Also genengineer some of them to be able to carry huge loads at somewhat lower speeds and they can replace trucks and truckers. While this may be extreme how about genengineering humans to convert McD burgers
    • by Ironsides (739422)
      From Wiki: [wikipedia.org]
      Sugarcane cultivation requires a tropical or subtropical climate, with a minimum of 600 mm (24 in) of annual moisture.

      Last I checked, not much of the U.S. had a tropical or sub tropical climate. This is funding research for plants that can actually be grown in the U.S.
      • by ghoul (157158)
        Exactly my point . Instead of trying to make corn do what sugarcane can do why not work on sugarcane so it can grow in temperate conditions with less water. The Israelis have done wonderfull work on making rice - a crop even more water thirsty than sugarcane- to to grow in the Negev desert. Doesnt even need to hurt the farmers lobby. The same farmers growing corn could grow the drought resistant sugarcane. The plus is you save all the energy spent on converting corn to something which can be fermented into
  • They intend to create new life forms that are optimized for alcohol production.
    Well, we already have natural lifeforms optimized for alcohol consumption [go.com]. The marketing practically writes itself!
  • I HATE Archer Daniels Midland!!!!!
  • Two points -

    We can already make petroleum in the lab, in fact these guys are already doing it:
    http://discovermagazine.com/2006/apr/anything-oil [discovermagazine.com]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anything_into_oil [wikipedia.org]

    This book details how the peak oil theory is false, and that oil is abiogenic:
    Black Gold Stranglehold: Myth of Scarcity and Politics of Oil by Corsi and Smith
    (available at Amazon)

Arithmetic is being able to count up to twenty without taking off your shoes. -- Mickey Mouse

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