As we begin to finally get serious about our exploration of alternative energy generation technologies, we run heading, over and over again, with classic good-news/bad-news scenarios. Solar power is the absolute cleanest source of electricity, but it’s also expensive and takes up a lot of space. Wave energy is free, but accessing it is extremely costly. Ethanol is a good compromise, except that most of the savings are eroded away with collateral costs. The list goes on. That is why no alternative source of energy generation has broken out on top and become the next big thing. Well, there is a new player on the field, and while it is not without its downsides, it has so much to be said for it on the plus side. It’s very unlikelihood makes it intriguing. The source or this energy is <drum roll please>: E-Coli bacteria.
Yep. You heard me right. To be more precise, genetically engineered E-Coli. Lonnie Ingram, a professor of microbiology with University of Florida’s “Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences” has genetically engineered a strain of E-Coli that produces fuel ethanol from non-edible sugar sources at an estimated cost of $1.30 gallon.
Just in case you missed it, one of the most significant implications of that statement is “non-edible.” In other words, it is of no use to either humans of animals as a source of nourishment. It’s just a waste product that must be disposed of. Until now. But wait, it gets better.
There are certain types of grasses and other vegetation that can grow quite well on land that is not suitable for growing any kind of edible plants. This land, from the agricultural standpoint, is utterly useless. Yet the E-Coli thrive on these plants. So what we have is the ability to feed bacteria on plants that don’t take a single acre of land away from the production of edible food, and have the capacity to produce enormous quantities of fuel that can immediately replace the fossil fuels we have become so dependent on.
Now, ethanol is not a silver bullet, even if it fell right out of the sky into your gas tank. It dumps at best only about one third less carbon into the atmosphere as what most of us are burning now. On the other hand, a third is a third. And it will take some of the pressure off while we bring something even better into full production.
The developers of this technology are confident that, with a little more creative bio-engineering, they can create new strains of bacteria that can poop diesel, gasoline, or even jet fuel. Diesel has already been proven.
And then there is always the possible risk intrinsic to putting a new man-made species of organism into the world. We have no particular reason to think there is any danger, but no one can honestly say that they know with absolute certainty. We do, however, know that if we don’t do something to slow down, and eventually stop, global warming, the rest will all be academic soon enough. Maybe this isn’t as big a gamble as it might at first appear.
Both the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Energy are taking it very seriously, and with good reason. For more on this technology, look here: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2005/05/genetically_eng.php.