Diesel On Demand — E.Coli Bacteria Engineered To Produce Pure Diesel Fuel

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Diesel on demand — researchers at the University of Exeter have developed a method of producing pure diesel with E.coli bacteria. The new diesel is nearly identical to the conventional form, and apparently does not need to be blended with petroleum products as other biodiesels typically do. The multinational oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, commonly known as Shell, contributed to the research.

Biodiesel made from E.coli
Image Credit: Marian Littlejohn

There are significant commercialization challenges that face the new technology, but it’s still an interesting development.

The new diesel is created through the use of specialized E. coli bacteria, which turn the sugars supplied to them into fats to build their cell membranes (as all E.coli do). But with carefully chosen changes to the bacteria, it becomes possible to create the synthetic fuel. E.coli is already widely used in the pharmaceutical industry in a similar capacity.

One of the significant advantages of this new diesel, and why oil companies are so interested in it, is that it is completely compatible with current infrastructure. All of the engines, pipelines, and tankers that are currently in use can simply continue being used. No changes necessary.

Professor John Love from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said: “Producing a commercial biofuel that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset. Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral biofuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect.”

Rob Lee from Shell Projects & Technology said: “We are proud of the work being done by Exeter in using advanced biotechnologies to create the specific hydrocarbon molecules that we know will continue to be in high demand in the future. While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialisation, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel, along with other intelligent technologies, we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.”

While it’s easy to see why the technology is appealing to those in the industry, it remains a very open question whether it will ever be widely used. Or whether it even should be. Whether “carbon neutral” or not, there are significant downsides to any form of diesel, that simply aren’t there with renewable energy and electric vehicles. Among the most significant and obvious downsides is air pollution — why use biodiesel when it’s possible to switch over to forms of transportation that release no air pollution at all?

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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