Company Announces Breakthrough in Converting Plants to Gasoline in One Step

Back when biofuels were in vogue and everybody in the industry, as well as what seemed like a majority of politicians, were singing kumbaya in the name of solving all our woes, California company LS9 was seen as one of the rising stars in the next generation biofuels movement. The reason: they were (and are still) developing a genetically engineered microbe that can take raw plant material and turn it directly into a fuel (diesel and/or gasoline) that you would be able to drop into your existing fuel tank and your car wouldn’t so much as even notice. This type of biofuel is called a “drop-in” fuel.

Imagine that: a facility that accepts any kind of woody waste or raw plant material as input and produces tanks and tanks of gasoline as its output on a daily basis—nothing else needed and no other steps in between. If it could be developed, you might start to grasp how revolutionary such a process would be.

Of course, since those heydays of biofuel in-vogueness, biofuels have become mired in the ugly world of Corn Belt politics, controversies over food vs. fuel, land use issues, and debates about whether or not biofuels are even better for the environment than fossil fuels to begin with. Looking back, it was amazing how quickly the promise of biofuels all fell apart. But that didn’t stop companies like LS9 from continuing to do research on what are still, fundamentally, potentially game changing advances.

And now LS9, in a paper published in the prestigious scientific journal “Science,” says that their last hurdle to actually creating some kind of super bug that can do what they set out to do—change raw plant matter into fuel—has been jumped. The discovery opens the door to completely engineering a microbe that can fulfill the promise of a cheap, renewable drop-in fuel made from materials that don’t compete with food.

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“This scientific discovery made by the LS9 team is game changing for our company and the advanced biofuels industry,” said Bill Haywood, the company’s CEO. “This remarkable breakthrough is yet another successful step in LS9′s progress toward delivering a broad portfolio of renewable fuels and chemicals to the world market as quickly as possible.”

After identifying a gene in the common e. coli bacteria (yes the same family that can lead to food poisoning—you all remember the spinach-from-Mexico scare) that is responsible for creating the same chemicals that are found in all fossil fuels, the LS9 researchers are set to engineer a microbe that will include both the currently discovered gene as well as genes that allow the microbes to metabolize any kind of raw plant material which the LS9 researchers reported back in January.

“This is a one step sugar- to-diesel process that does not require elevated temperatures, high pressures, toxic inorganic catalysts, hydrogen or complex unit operations” said Steve del Cardayre, Vice President of Research and Development at LS9. “We believe in simple processes at LS9, and the simplicity of this process has allowed us to successfully accelerate its scale-up and development.”

To date LS9 hasn’t really hit the headlines, essentially flying under the radar. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t attracted the attention of some substantial backers. LS9′s funder list currently includes such major venture investment firms as Chevron Technology Ventures, Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. LS9 has also set up a partnership with Procter & Gamble to develop bio-derived chemicals of the future. If this breakthrough truly delivers what it promises, the opportunity to completely alter how we fuel our vehicles without changing a thing about what or how we drive is staggering.

Source: LS9


  • JamesDavis

    Boy, I tell you, “greed sure can mess up the environment.” No one told LS9 that we are converting over to electric cars so we can stop the huge out-pouring of carbon (CO1) from vehicles into our atmosphere. Hay!!! LS9, your biofuel will continue to make people sick and kill them. Why don’t you figure out how to make a battery that can hold a super charge and then you will not be killing our environment.

  • patrick ibbertson

    Presumably the microbes recycle carbon already present in the atmosphere so there would be practically no nett increase in atmospheric carbon, unlike from fossil fuels. Therefore this is a potential breakthrough if the production can be achieved at high level and competitive cost.

  • Alexei

    “LS9 has also set up a partnership with Procter & Gamble to develop bio-derived chemicals”. some of these chemicals can go into resins and plastics which will capture the carbon and will not release it back into atmosphere.

  • David

    James, you’re missing the point. We still need liquid fuels no matter what. You can’t fly an airplane on batteries. As we convert to more and more vehicles that use electricity either totally (like an EV) or partially (like any number of hybrids) we still have to have a source of ‘portable’ fuel (just, hopefully, much less of it). In addition, electrical power plants can capture more of their emissions if they run on this stuff. In the meantime, we could go a long way towards combatting terrorism by cutting our oil imports, help the environment by not having to drill in such remote and dangerous areas and even improve our trade deficit.

    Just because this doesn’t solve EVERY problem doesn’t mean it should be ridiculed.

  • Dom

    I think something like this if it could end up being a better solution than batteries. I know many people here is all goggle-eyed over electric cars, but a renewable non-food-based drop-in replacement fuel like this would be a really good solution, possibly better. And since it would be carbon-neutral it would be fine from an environmental perspective. Oh, and you can go farther than 100 miles on a tank.

  • vapsa56

    I work in Biomedical Engneering and we have very strict regulations governering genetically engineered microbes. So here is my Question….

    What would happen if say in the process of of making fuel in this manner, that God forbid there was an accident,(BP comes to mind) and this genetically engineered microbe was inadvertently released into the enviorment?

    I mean according to this artical this microbe “does not require elevated temperatures, high pressures, toxic inorganic catalysts, hydrogen or complex unit operations” to eat plant matter and poop fuel.

    It can be assumed that it does not matter if that plant matter is dead or alive or the fruit of the plant or the inedible plant stock. Also, E-Coli, which this microbe is engineered from, does not care or distinguish between live or dead plant matter or flesh in order to servive. And finally, microbes have a nasty little habit of evolving to best suit their new environment.

    So the question again is what would happen is this microbe were to ever get out into the general environment?

  • Dom

    “So the question again is what would happen is this microbe were to ever get out into the general environment?”

    Zombies.

  • Anonymous

    bla bla hits the nail right on the head… just imagine an accidental release over a forest. the devastation could be beyond belief if these things get out of control. come to think of it, terrorists would love to get their hands on this stuff.

  • FooBarSys

    LS9′s invention will turn our green forests into oily goos.

  • Mr. Fusion

    Do they have an antidote?

    If not…deep 6 LS9 now.

  • calvin

    It appears that the bacteria still need to be put in a fermentation tank with a catalyst. It’s unlikely that you’ll find these conditions in the wild. So even if some bacteria do escape, it’s unlikely to have any significant impact on the environment (a greater risk is that your next beer will contain a little oil in it).

  • vapsa56

    Zombies….

    Well you may be right in that one Dom since all plant life would turn into pools of diesel fuel we would have to eat one another to survive if we don’t sufficate through lack of oxygen first.

  • kballs

    So, they need a catalyst and a warm tank… what if they mutated? Turn forests into the land of 1000 gasoline lakes… new meaning to the term “forest fire”, and even if it didn’t burn, massive massive smog. Zombies would have a hard time in that mess. Now dragons, they would love it!

  • calvin

    What if yeast and existing bacteria mutated? There are already micro-organisms that can metabolize any type of cellulose. The breakthrough here is simply that the bacteria itself can now produce the enzymes to convert sugars to fuel.

    If you really believe in such outlandish scenarios, then what LS9 is doing is irrelevant. I mean, would turning all plant life into clouds of methane be any better than gasoline? Because that’s the only difference between this genetically engineered bacteria and the thousands of preexisting microbes that can already ferment biomass and have been doing so for millions of years.

  • mike gross

    nice comments guys…all very thought provok’n…to a point!!! As an ex-trooper of the elite 82airborne…its sounds to me a little chickenish! The best solution is to simply plant an All AMERICAN flag on ANY geo locale on the planet that puk’n copius black goo ..just claim it as US territory. What the F… R the fairyass Arabs gonna do?

  • Daton L. Fluker

    Research is being done on animal hybrids. What if a scientist made a microbe–slash–zombie parasite, which infects red ants in the tropical forest, by mixing parasite DNA with, human and Microbes RNA. What these parasites do is affect the brain of the insect, taking over the insect’s brain. If a scientist could transfer, human DNA, parasitic DNA, and microbe DNA, in the same fetus, he or she could possibly make a zombie virus, or a zombie microbe, which could control the human mind. Possibly, it would bore tiny holes through the cerebrum and take control of the nervous system. One of the parasitic creatures I am talking about is the Fluke worm. I only thought of this because someone said something about zombies. I hope LSD is aware of this.