In Praise of Poop 2: E. coli Waste as a New Form of Biofuel

Now that we have picked apart the many hidden wonders of cow manure, we may safely examine yet another, more recent entry in the annals of excellent excrement: E. coli.

Believe it or not, E. coli may actually be useful for something other than infecting spinach or beef, giving you a serious case of diarrhea, and initiating massive recalls of different food products. The waste of these reputedly nasty little bacteria can, in fact, be used as a source for biofuel. No…er, joke.

As CNN reported recently, a biotech lab in San Francisco, LS9 Inc., is using a harmless form of E. coli to make biodiesel. The genetically altered bacteria get fed various forms of sugars, anything from sugar cane to wood chips or other plant waste, and after munching their little mitochondria out (they do not have hearts, after all), they poop the equivalent of diesel fuel.1 Now that is some exciting excrement!

Even more exciting than the diesel poop, the company claims that the same bacteria can be used to produce gasoline or even jet fuel. Yes, sometime in the future you may be flying those friendly skies or putt-putting along in your car thanks to the hard working, hard pooping E. coli from LS9. You have to wonder what the exhaust will smell like….

One obvious problem is that, like the teeny tiny little E. coli poop factories themselves, this form of biofuel has trouble remaining viable on larger scales. So do not plan to pull up to the pump and squeeze some of this stuff into your tank anytime soon.

However, as LS9’s president Bob Walsh points out, their product can be used within the existing oil/gas infrastructure (unlike ethanol) along with having other benefits, so the company plans to have large-scale commercial production going in three to four years. And with fossil fuels still on a polluting rampage worldwide, any form of alternative energy can contribute to reducing humanity’s impact on the biosphere.

A larger worry, at least for me and surely many others, is the fact that the bacteria are genetically altered. Thus they use the term “programmed” for the process of redesigning the bacteria for different forms of waste/fuel. A rather scary, if fitting, choice of words with all the genetic altering and Frankensteining going on.

Still, with this new, wonderful use of E. coli poop, you may rightly be all set to start your own E. coli poop production line. Alas, this stuff is not as easy to harvest as cow manure and other more traditional marvelous manures. And do not, I repeat do not, go out stocking up on recalled spinach or beef in order to make your own body an E. coli factory! Best leave this stuff to the experts.

But what you can do, safely and in the spirit of fun environmental advocacy, is to get the CNN headline t-shirt heralding the surprising power of E. coli poop! You may turn some heads and get some strange looks, but hey, who would not be interested in hearing about biofuel from bacterial excrement?

In a time when we need to do all we can to find sustainable alternatives to our many dangerous, damaging human activities, wear your t-shirt proudly and spread the word about these tremendous little turds.

Image credit: Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia Commons.
1. Walton, Marsha. “Lab makes renewable diesel fuel from E. coli poop.” CNN.com. 13 August 2008. Cable News Network-Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 15 August 2008 <http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/08/12/bug.diesel/index.html>.

  1. Chuck

    “And with fossil fuels still on a polluting rampage worldwide, any form of alternative energy can contribute to reducing humanity’s impact on the biosphere.”

    How is burning bio produced fuel better?

  2. Meg

    My thoughts exactly Chuck!

    If what these marvellously engineered bacteria are producing is the equivalent of diesel, then surely when its burnt you get the equivalent emissions?

    Perhaps the production side of things is a little more eco-considerate?

  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    The burning and emissions aspects of biofuels pretty much have been found to be cleaner than with fossil fuels; the specifics will depend on each specific biofuel being considered. Biofuels can be better than fossil fuels on the other end, the production side, since many of them (such as this E. coli biodiesel) are more eco-friendly because renewable, less harmful to the environment, etc. And ones that do not require using food crops (corn, soy…) are especially helpful in this regard.

    The bottom line, though, is that biofuels are definitely cleaner on the input and the output end when compared with fossil fuels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *