E. coli can cause severe food poisoning, massive food recalls and might soon … power your car? Scientists in the United Kingdom have reprogrammed the bacteria to make diesel oil that is identical to conventional mined diesel fuel.
The breakthrough is important because unlike other biofuels that are produced from corn oil, plants or algae, biofuel created by E. coli does not have to be mixed with conventional oil in order to power an engine, according to John Love, a professor at England's University of Exeter. His study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.
"The problem with current biofuels is that the quality is variable," Love says. "Anytime they're used they have to be mixed with conventional fossil fuels unless you want to make significant changes to an engine.
"If you add too much of existing biofuels to engines, it won't function optimally. The particulate filters can become clogged and shut down the engine."
That fact has led the Navy, which spends millions of dollars annually on its so-called "Green Fleet" to use a 50-50 mix of biofuel and conventional fuel. Using Love's new process, E. coli can be reprogrammed to naturally produce fuel that can be used in any combustion engine.
"The best biofuel you could have would be exactly like the fossil fuels we have, but produced through biological means, not mining," he says. "We've managed to generate these fuels by modifying bacteria to mimic fossil fuel-derived diesel. The fuels we're generating could be used in standard internal combustion engines."
The days of bacteria-powered cars and airplanes are still at least a decade off. For now, Love's lab is only creating a few drops of the fuel. He's currently trying to produce enough diesel to "fill a jar" to show off. But his team has proven the process is possible, which is an important step, he says. His study was backed by Shell, which suggests industry is interested in scaling up the process.
"While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialization, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel … we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel," Rob Lee, a representative for Shell, said in a statement.
Though an engine running off biodiesel will still create carbon dioxide emissions, Love says E. coli uses carbon dioxide in the diesel-making process, leading to net-zero emissions.
"If it's originated from a biological process, the carbon goes around in a circle," he says. "The [global warming] problem we're facing now is we're taking fossilized carbon from the mineral realm and extracting that and putting it back into the biological cycle. That's why we're getting an increase in emissions."
Love says he hopes that a "pilot program" can be implemented within 10 years to create hundreds of liters of biofuel as a test project.
"The challenges we face to make this commercially viable are enormous and it'll be a multidisciplinary effort," he says. "But [the discovery] is definitely a step forward in the process.