For centuries alchemy, the belief that common lead could be transformed into pure gold, was the preserve of nutters and dupes. The 21st century, however, could see a form of alchemy turned into reality.
Yesterday's Globe & Mail reported on a breakthrough that uses genetically modified bacteria (e-coli no less) to transform carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuels - gasoline, diesel, kerosene, you name it. Joule Unlimited says it has developed a technology that uses bacteria growing in waste water that consume CO2 and excrete liquid hydrocarbon fuels at a cost equivalent of $30-per barrel crude.
The Joule technology requires no “feedstock,” no corn, no wood, no garbage, no algae. Aside from hungry, gene-altered micro-organisms, it requires only carbon dioxide and sunshine to manufacture crude. And water: whether fresh, brackish or salt. With these “inputs,” it mimics photosynthesis, the process by which green leaves use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds. Indeed, the company describes its manufacture of fossil fuels as “artificial photosynthesis.”
I read the article with a good measure of skepticism for it sounds far too good to be true. That led me to take a look at Joule Unlimited and its key personnel. I was impressed. Joule is run by some very top-drawer scientists from the several fields one would expect would be involved in developing this technology. Yet, for all that, the story still sounded too good to be true. Now I'm pretty sure it is.
What's notable in the G&M story is the range of questions unanswered and apparently never asked by the reporter. These are the questions one needs to make any real sense of this story, questions that determine whether Joule's discovery is really an answer to our carbon emissions problems or Peak Oil.
A key issue is whether Joule's breakthrough is just a lab trick. We've done all manner of things, impossible things in labs recently. We've collided the smallest sub atomic particles. We've created anti-matter. We've even exceeded the speed of light. All these things were done in very controlled conditions. None of them will have any practical application probably not even within your grandkids lifetimes.
Is it scaleable? Is it truly suited to large-scale applications that would be needed to supplant conventional fossil fuels?
What are the waste or by-products of this technology? For example, desalination plants sound terrific until you begin to explore the contaminated brine effluent that is produced and released back into the environment. Joule's process uses waste water. What is the state of that waste water after processing?
Are there hidden energy inputs? For example, where does that carbon dioxide come from? Is it pressurized, liquified? How is it transported?
If it is scaleable and cheap and safe, what is the timeline for the construction of artificial liquid hydrocarbon plants that could realistically supplant conventional fossil fuels? This is a big one. Time is running out. Some of the best minds give us less than two decades to wean ourselves off conventional fossil fuels. If the Joule discovery is 30 or 40 years away from practical implementation it's value is greatly diminished.
And then we come to the real problems, the geopolitical issues. Surely a development like this would be of a magnitude of the first production of nuclear weapons. It would be a game changer. Whichever state held it would have a great advantage from independence from conventional fossil fuels. Something like this, closely held as a strategic asset, might just be enough to put America back on top. That would, of course, depend on America's rivals not getting their hands on the technology.
Would we finally be able to turn the lights off on the Middle East? Everything we've done there, every problem we've created and confronted, is at least partly if not entirely related to our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. With just a couple of exceptions, the world's petro-states are pretty nasty places whose influences we could do quite well without. If "eco-oil" could be had at $30-a barrel, you could be sure that conventional oil would be priced at a significant discount. The Persian Gulf? There goes the neighbourhood.
And, finally, what lies in store for unconventional fossil fuels, the filthiest and most expensive of the lot? Yes, I'm talking about Athabasca and offshore wells. They would be the first to go and they would go down hard.
The Joule Unlimited announcement comes on the heels of a report out of CalTech where researchers have obtained a patent for another form of alternative transport fuel, liquid hydrogen, produced from solar-powered, cerium-oxide reactors. It seems that necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. But is it all too little, too late? And what of the opposition that can be expected to run interference as it does with all alternative energy options? What of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Gas and their incestuous bedding of America's "bought and paid for " Congress? Can any breakthrough decouple the US government from its fossil fuel benefactors?
So many questions, so few answers. Yet the questions themselves are oddly captivating, even mildly entertaining. This promises to be an era like none other.