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Synthetic oil produced from microbes could be the long sought-after clean fuel of the future. 

There are labs all over the world working on the genetic engineering of microbes to produce combustible fuel. It’s a bit surprising that this bioengineering initiative doesn’t receive more press because the significance of this research is enormous. Imagine if we didn’t have to pump fossil fuels from the ground anymore but instead could make it with giant tanks filled with microbes. Talk about a game changer.

Well, it’s happening now. Researchers at the University of Exeter in Great Britain report that they have genetically modified E. coli bacteria to convert sugar into an oil that is almost identical to conventional petroleum oil pumped out of the ground. Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, explains: “Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel. The idea is that car manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn’t even notice the difference.”

It is important to note what he means by “biofuels”.  Biofuels like biodiesel and bioethanol are mixtures of crop grown fuels and standard petroleum-based fuels and they are not fully compatible with modern engines. The substance that the researchers at the University of Exeter are making is a genuine petroleum substitute.

Not only would the commercial production of this bio-generated oil ease our dependence on fossil fuels, it would be close to carbon-neutral in use. Presently gasoline and diesel oil release carbon that has been stored deep within the Earth for millions of years.  Producing this bio-generated oil doesn’t do that because it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere during production. This is a major problem solved.

Currently there is a yield problem, though. Professor Love said it would take about 100 liters of bacteria to produce a single teaspoon of the oil fuel. “Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” he said. “We’ve got a timeframe of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it.” The team is also looking to see if the bacteria can convert any other products into fuel, such as human or animal waste.