Are Synthetic Fuels Viable Alternatives to Ethanol?

The cost of oil has only recently dropped after more than a year of bank-breaking prices. While it has decreased from $140 to $65 per barrel, the future of oil prices remains obscured. To alleviate the pressure of finding solutions to our oil dependency without funding tyrants overseas or drilling holes in our eastern seaboard, Dr. Jay Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley, is pioneering a new way. Keasling, a synthetic biologist, and others at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) are trying to artificially generate some of the compounds found in fuels such as gasoline.

Keasling has already accomplished this type of thing once with an antimalarial drug. Keasling was able to engineer bacteria and yeast to produce artemisinin. This is an expensive compound normally from plants. With Keasling’s system, however, plants are no longer needed to help manufacture artemisinin, but rather, huge batches can be generated with the bacteria and yeast. Artemisinin is essentially a hydrocarbon that the bacteria and yeast are genetically altered to make. In the October 24 issue of Science, Keasling says, “Artemisinin is a hydrocarbon…we’re just trying to engineer organisms to produce different hydrocarbons.” These other hydrocarbons are what he hopes can be used to artificially reproduce gasoline, jet fuel and plastics.

While Keasling believes this technology “is just…the beginning”, it is still too expensive to beat the price of conventional oil, even with prices as high as $140 per barrel. Even so, several companies both small and large are looking into the possibilities. In fact, some companies have decided to begin manufacturing fuel, regardless of its more expensive cost. The hope is that although the price is high now, advances in the technology will deflate the cost to be competitive with conventional products. Optimistically, it could also become possible for conventional oil to become an option, rather than an imperative.

Ethanol’s Shortcomings

One of the first goals Keasling hopes to accomplish is to shift the public’s desire for ethanol. The Renewable Fuels Association reported in 2007 that 50 billion liters of ethanol was produced. Unfortunately, debate surrounds ethanol since it is derived from corn in the U.S. Opponents of this method contend that using corn for fuel increases the cost of food. Furthermore, they believe the progress made by using the environmentally friendly fuel is absorbed by the conventional gas and oil needed to grow, harvest and convert the corn. Ethanol is also problematic since it cannot be distributed through the pipeline infrastructure already in place for oil. For all of these reasons, Keasling and others like him believe the true answer lies in artificially generated fuel.

While Keasling believes the technique of using bacteria and yeast to produce fuel is promising, it is still far from perfect or practical on a large scale. When his group was working to make artemisinin, it required 50 changes to the bacterial DNA. By adding certain genes, Keasling was able to turn the bacteria into millions of little manufacturing plants. Initially, however, the bacteria were only able to produce small amounts of the antimalarial compound. Through optimization of his method, Keasling was able to increase the yield of artemisinin by a million fold. While this brought the production price down to competitive levels with the conventionally produced compound, accomplishing the same task with fuel will prove more of a challenge. While they were able to reduce the cost of artemisinin to $1 per gram, this same price for artificially generated oil would equal $125 per liter. Keasling has already started to increase the bacteria-produced hydrocarbon yield. At a meeting in September, he reported a method that has amplified the yield 77-fold.

Other Efforts

Keasling isn’t the only one getting involved. In San Francisco, bacteria are being manipulated to produce renewable petroleum and biodiesel. Gregory Pal, the senior director for corporate development at LS9, stated in Science that they have already made several hydrocarbons that could be used for fuel and that they are currently scaling up production. Although a pilot fermentation experiment is currently being conducted, if all goes as planned, a small fuel production plant could be operational by 2010.

While these two groups and others are manipulating different metabolic pathways of the bacteria to produce the desired results, the consequences will be the same, and relatively soon. By using an organism as easy to grow as the bacterium they have chosen and manipulating it, it is possible these scientists have opened a new door for energy solutions. With continued advancements, families in the future may be saved from facing the personal economic stresses they have struggled with for more than a year in areas such as gas for the family vehicle, food and air travel.


Service, Robert. Science, 322 (5901): 522-523 (24 October 2008). Eyeing Oil, Synthetic Biologists Mine Microbes for Black Gold.

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