Newsweek Interview: Craig Venter's CO2-Eating Miracle Bacterium

craig venter TED talk

Image from TED Conference via flickr

This week's issue of Newsweek features an interview with Craig Venter, the "bad boy" of science whose work developing new bacterial strains capable of eating CO2 and producing fuels we've chronicled in recent months, in which he reveals more about his Maryland lab and the innovative processes it's pioneering.

As we've described before, Venter's overarching goal is to produce microorganisms that are able to "convert things like sugar or sunlight or carbon dioxide into fuels that people are very familiar with, like diesel fuel and gasoline," as he himself put it. These would constitute not only the fabled second- and third-generation biofuels we keep hearing about (like cellulosic ethanol and other plant biomass-derived fuels) but even so-called "fourth-generation" biofuels -- those produced directly from CO2.Venter hopes his bugs will supplant the need for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies by making CO2 a commodity, instead of a byproduct to be disposed of. According to Venter, large, bacteria-processing fermenters, similar to those used to make beer and wine, would replace traditional refineries. He expects the first generation of his engineered bacteria to be commercially available within the next year or two years. He made it a point to stress that he and his colleagues were thinking "in terms of years, not decades."

Those concerned about how these bacteria-produced fuels will integrate into our present energy infrastructure need not worry, Venter explains; in fact, they won't even require the type of adjustment that even corn ethanol needs. This is because Venter's fuels can be produced with very little water, which minimizes damages to car engines.

Of course, those familiar with Venter and his work know that any of his statements should be taken with a heavy grain of salt. He isn't called the "bad boy" of science for nothing, after all. Regardless of one's views about his outsize personality, one certainly can't deny he is a visionary in many respects. Here's how he describes some of the impacts he foresees his inventions will have:

The fuel-and-oil industry is a multi trillion-dollar industry, so I think there is room for dozens to a hundred solutions, each of which could create trillion-dollar industries. The same oil that gets burned as fuel is also the entire basis for the petrochemical industries, so our clothing, our plastics and our pharmaceuticals all come from oil and its derivatives. There are multiple billion- or trillion-dollar industries out there that new inventions will help spawn.

Right now oil is being isolated around the globe, and there is a major effort in shipping, trucking and otherwise transporting that oil around to a very finite number of refineries. Biology allows us to make these same fuels in a much more distributed fashion. I envision maybe a million micro-refineries. Companies, cities and potentially even individuals could have a small refinery to make their own fuel. This would eliminate a lot of the distribution problems and associated pollution.

It could all yet come apart, of course, but now, more than ever, we need ambitious individuals like Venter out there working hard to tackle climate change and our energy crisis.

Via ::Newsweek: A Bug to Save the Planet (news website)

More on Craig Venter
::TED Video: Craig Venter on Synthetic Life and Making Fuel from CO2
::Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2
Synthetic biology
::Getting a Patent on Life?
::You Got Bacteria in My Gas: Engineering Microbes to Make Hydrocarbons

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