If you're like most people, then the word "E. coli" makes you nervous.
But believe it or not, this tiny organism commonly associated with stomach cramps and vomiting could actually alleviate some of our energy woes ... by excreting crude oil. It may sound crazy, but some rather inventive geneticists at a company called LS9, Inc., have been tinkering with the DNA of industrial yeast and harmless strains of E.coli, so these organisms can convert agricultural waste into fuel that's practically pump-ready.
Since crude oil is molecularly similar to the fatty acids that these tiny single-celled organisms normally excrete, the alteration isn't as "out there" as you might think. LS9 has already streamlined the gene-altering process from one that took several months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to one that takes just a few weeks and just $20,000 [source: Ayres]. That's not too bad when you compare these microorganisms to oil drilling, which can actually take years to get going and cost just as much (and more if you weigh in the environmental costs as well).
These inventors envision their microorganism excrement -- "Oil 2.0" -- as being both renewable and carbon negative. That means because of the raw materials it uses, the process will take even more carbon out of the atmosphere than what it puts back in. And these organisms wouldn't rely on any single agricultural waste, thereby eliminating the controversy over using specific food crops for fuel. Instead, the process would rely on whatever is abundant in the local environment.
As of June 2008, LS9 could produce the equivalent of one barrel of oil per week with a 1,000-liter machine that takes up 40 square feet (3.7 square meters) of space [source: Ayres]. So even though, as the project stands now, you'd need a building the size of Chicago to fuel the oil needs of the United States, you may want to reconsider your attitude about yeast and E. coli.