The raw material for diesel fuel could soon come bubbling up from a vat rather than from the ground. LS9 Inc., a California biotech company, has genetically engineered a harmless form of E. coli bacteria that feeds on sugar from plant material, digests it, and then produces diesel as a waste product.
The company says its diesel does not contain any carcinogens and carries less sulfur than is found in fossil fuel. The bacteria can use any type of plant material as feedstock, including waste like wood chips. In addition, LS9 says, the biofuel is virtually pump-ready, needing only a simple cleaning to filter out impurities. LS9 also says its product has 50 percent more energy content than traditional fuel—hence a vehicle could travel farther on a gallon of the sugar-based fluid.
Although LS9 has shown that the bacteria can make diesel in a test tube, it has yet to undertake mass production. At present, it can make one barrel a week, using the 1,000liter fermentation tank shown in the photo above. LS9 plans to construct a commercial facility in Brazil by 2011. Fuel made from Brazilian sugar cane would probably cost US $50 a barrel, the company says.