The Other I

June 16, 2008

Home-grown oil?

I have just read one of the most intriguing articles I’ve seen in years.  A group of young scientists in Silicon Valley, California, have produced bacteria that feed on agricultural waste and excrete crude oil.  No kidding.  Within the month they expect to be able to test their produce called “Oil 2.0″ ” on a real car.  Unlike oil pumped from the ground, this Oil 2.0 is carbon negative, putting less carbon into the air when it is used than the amount of carbon it sucks out of the atmosphere when it is being produced.

Even more astonishing – at least to me, is that the company plans to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010, and to have a commercial-scale plant open within a year after that.

Meanwhile, a scientist in Japan is working with an algae that excretes oil.  He is receiving massive government support and thinks he can create algae-filled fields producing enough oil to meet Japan’s current oil needs within five years, and within less than a decade enough oil to turn Japan, which today has to import every drop of oil it uses, into an oil-exporting country.

The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling this becomes.  I remember when I first read about AIDS in 1970’s, discussing with a colleague at the university where I was working that this was going to be a big thing.  I thought the same thing when BSE infected cattle.  But the potential for this kind of renewable petroleum to change the world in a positive direction dwarfs almost anything short of global warfare that I can think of.

Think about it.  If mankind has figured out how to produce oil without pollution and at an affordable price, the geopolitical landscape through the world will change dramatically.  Food shortages resulting from creating fuel from bio-mass will disappear.  Pollution will be drastically reduced, along with the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming.

And all of this potentially not in my life time, but in less than a decade.  It is so astonishing as to be almost unbelievable.

Well, perhaps it is unbelievable.  At least it’s not a sure thing.  There are some rather significant problems to be worked out before either plan becomes commercially viable.  But that’s what they used to say about putting a man on the moon.

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