Could GMOs Solve the World's Energy Needs?

As developing nations advance their economies, and with the global population expected to increase by 2 billion by 2050, we may have to start looking at some novel forms of energy if we want the world economy to continue growing in the decades to come. According to the Energy Information Administration, the world's energy demands will increase by 56% by 2040.

As Patrik Jones of Imperial College London points out, "Fossil fuels are a finite resource, and as our population continues to grow, we are going to have to come up with new ways to meet increasing energy demands."

Jones, along with colleagues at the University of Turku in Finland, are researching a novel way to meet those needs while minimizing the damage to the environment. According to these researchers, the answer to the world's energy needs may lie in genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. 

The failure of crop-based biofuels
One of the benefits of biofuels is that the carbon that winds up being released as CO2 comes from the growing organism, making biofuels carbon neutral -- at least in theory. It doesn't work out that way when it comes to crop-based biofuels, such as corn ethanol. 

According to David Pimentel, an ecologist from Cornell University, a gallon of corn ethanol contains 77,000 BTUs of energy but requires 131,000 BTUs to produce. Given that corn requires the use of fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process, and transport, it's looking increasingly likely that corn ethanol is a net harm to the environment. 

But what if we didn't need to choose between food and fuel? Instead, what if genetically engineered bacteria could help supply at least a portion of the world's energy needs in a carbon-neutral manner? 

Bacteria-produced gasoline
In 2013, John Love and researchers at the University of Exeter, UK, with funding from Royal Dutch Shell, spliced DNA from soil bacteria, the camphor tree, and blue-green algae into E. coli bacteria. The result was easily grown bacteria that can convert any form of glucose (sugar) into fuel that was chemically identical to commercial fuel. 

"We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells," Love said.

Currently the technology is purely experimental, with the team working on scaling the process to industrial levels. Should that prove possible, Love thinks it would be possible to alter the genes of the bacteria to produce fuel from feedstocks such as straw and animal manure, thus circumventing the controversy over using agricultural land to fuel cars rather than people. 

Paul Freemont, of the Macromolecular Structure and Function lab in Imperial College's Department of Life Sciences, says the applications of this technology may go beyond simple fuel. He says the same technology could engineer bacteria that can synthesize chemicals currently derived from petroleum, such as pharmaceuticals, solvents, plastics, and detergents. 

Bacteria-produced propane
Jones' research team has recently genetically altered E. coli to produce propane that can be directly fed into internal combustion engines. Why propane instead of gasoline or diesel? According to Jones, "We chose propane because it can be separated from the natural process with minimal energy and it will be compatible with the existing infrastructure for easy use."

An additional benefit is that propane, a gas at room temperature, bubbles out of the bacteria and thus doesn't inhibit their growth. Propane is also easily converted from a gas to a liquid, for easier storage and transport. Eventually, the researchers hope to bioengineer cyanobacteria to produce propane from sunlight. 

Bacteria-produced solar panels
A team of researchers from MIT recently released a research paper that claims genetically modified bacteria could produce complex organic molecules that could transmit electricity. According to Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical and biological engineering, the potential applications involve bacteria-grown solar panels, batteries, self-healing materials, and diagnostic sensors. 

Commenting on the report, Lingchong You, a Duke University associate professor of biomedical engineering, called the research,"fantastic work that represents a great integration of synthetic biology and materials engineering."

What's the catch?
While this research is interesting and could help play a role in solving the world's energy needs one day, it's important to realize just how speculative this technology currently is. 

For example, Jones' research into bacteria-produced propane currently produces just 1/1,000 the amount of propane needed to be commercially viable. 

Commenting on the economic realities of his research, Jones said:

It is a substantial challenge, however, to develop a renewable process that is low-cost and economically sustainable. At the moment, algae can be used to make biodiesel, but it is not commercially viable as harvesting and processing requires a lot of energy and money. ... We don't have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds. ... I hope that over the next five to 10 years we will be able to achieve commercially viable processes.

Similarly, the MIT study is purely a theoretical paper about the potential for biofilms produced by genetically modified bacteria to incorporate complex inorganic molecules that might, one day, allow for the kind of energy revolution we all hope for. 

Are these kinds of biofuels doomed from the start?
An important thing to consider when asking ourselves whether this kind of research can ever truly make a difference to the world's energy needs is efficiency. 

For example, regarding the idea of genetically engineered photosynthetic organisms (such as cyanobacteria) making propane for vehicles, one needs to consider the efficiency of photosynthesis compared with regular solar panels. Photosynthesis is terribly inefficient, with typical crop plants converting only 1%-2% of the sun's light into energy (sugar cane is the best at 7%-8%). When the total energy required to create a biofuel is taken into consideration, that drops even further. 

For example, an analysis of a potential Hawaiian palm oil plantation that was to make biodiesel found that only 0.3% of the sun's energy wound up as chemical fuel. 

Given that internal-combustion engines are only 17%-21% efficient, compared with 59%-62% for electric cars, it's hard to argue that a better use of sunlight isn't for solar panels, which can achieve efficiencies of 22%-23% and the power stored in an electric car.

In addition, massive investment is going into improving electric cars, batteries, and solar panels, thanks to the likes of TeslaMotors and consumer electronics such as smartphones. Biofuels? Not nearly as much. Even if GMO biofuels could be improved, the final efficiency (and, thus, cost) is likely to always favor electric cars over biofuels. 

Bottom line
Before you go shorting shares of ExxonMobil or BP, realize that this level of research into the possible applications of genetically modified organisms in energy is at the infancy stage. Also realize that the renewable energy alternatives to biofuels, such as solar power and electric cars, are far superior in terms of efficiency and have an enormous head start when it comes to improving economic viability going forward. Given these efficiency and economic realities, I believe it's unlikely that GMO biofuels will ever contribute a meaningful percentage of the world's power needs. 

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