Craig Venter, Biotechnology Pioneer
Craig Venter is an interesting person. He seems to always be at the cutting edge of biotechnology: In 2001, he made headlines for sequencing the human genome. In 2003, he started mapping the ocean's biodiversity. Now he, with his firm Synthetic Genomics, is working on ways to produce energy with micro-organisms.
Making Fuel from CO2
Still as ambitious as ever, he just announced at the TED conference (you can see Venter's previous TED talk here, but his new one is not online yet): "We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy, we think we will have fourth-generation fuels in about 18 months, with CO2 as the fuel stock." What's this fourth-generation fuel he's talking about? Read on.
Biofuel alternatives to oil are third-generation. The next step is life forms that feed on CO2 and give off fuel such as methane gas as waste, according to Venter.
Craig Venter's Modified Organisms
His team is using synthetic chromosomes to modify organisms that already exist, not making new life, he said. Organisms already exist that produce octane, but not in amounts needed to be a fuel supply.
The genetics of octane-producing organisms can be tinkered with to increase the amount of CO2 they eat and octane they excrete, according to Venter.
The limiting part of the equation isn't designing an organism, it's the difficulty of extracting high concentrations of CO2 from the air to feed the organisms, the scientist said in answer to a question from Page.
The organisms including "suicide" genes so that if they escape the lab, they won't reproduce in nature.
Taking CO2 in large quantities from the atmosphere to make fuel is certainly an interesting concept if it can be pulled off well. This would combine the benefits of algae-based biofuels, since it wouldn't be competing with food, with large-scale production that regular photosynthesis probably just can't match.
Venter says he doesn't plan to partner with any individual company, and instead will merely make the methodology public. "I'm not sure anyone needs to make money on it," he said.
Electric vehicles might be more attractive in the mid-term as batteries and hypercapacitors improve and get cheaper, but it will take a while before all liquid fuels are phased out (especially for planes and ships), so we need to keep looking for clean sources to replace fossil hydrocarbons. Besides, there's no silver bullet. It's good that progress is being made on a variety of potential solutions.