Alt Energy Update: e-coli and Seaweed = Ethanol?

Combine with e-coli and you get...Ethanol!

Last March I reported on the idea of turning algae into fuel in Green Crude. Scientific American recently reported on a breakthrough that modified e-coli (the common and deadly stomach virus) to turn Kombu (seaweed) into Ethanol. From their article titled Genetically Engineered Stomach Microbe Converts Seaweed into Ethanol:

Seaweed may well be an ideal plant to turn into biofuel. It grows in much of the two thirds of the planet that is underwater, so it wouldn’t crowd out food crops the way corn for ethanol does. Because it draws its own nutrients and water from the sea, it requires no fertilizer or irrigation. Most importantly for would-be biofuel-makers, it contains no lignin—a strong strand of complex sugars that stiffens plant stalks and poses a big obstacle to turning land-based plants such as switchgrass into biofuel.

The article goes on to say:

An analysis from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory suggests that the U.S. could supply 1 percent of its annual gasoline needs by growing such seaweed for harvest in slightly less than 1 percent of the nation’s territorial waters. Humans already grow and harvest some 15 million metric tons of kombu and other seaweeds to eat. And there’s no reason to fear the newly engineered E. coli escaping into the wild and consuming the seaweed already out there, Yoshikuni argues. “E. coli loves the human gut, it doesn’t like the ocean environment,” he says. “I can hardly imagine it would do something. It would just be dead.”

So it won’t be a major source of energy, but its a start! I think what scares me the most however is the last quote by Yoshikuni “I can hardly imagine it would do something”. It sounds like the start of a movie where the world population was severely reduced because of an outbreak caused by a scientist with a lack of imagination!

My point though is that the age of science is ushering in a new revolution in energy. It may take a few decades (or even a century), but our ability to create energy that is safe, clean and plentiful is about to explode (ok, maybe not the best choice of words!).

Scott Dauenhauer CFP, MSFP, AIF


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