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A Bug In The Tank

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

The DriveWrite Archives

A Bug In The Tank

Geoff Maxted
September 23, 2013

Back to the Future Mr. Fusion
Across the world scientists are constantly striving to develop new super-fuels that will reduce or replace our reliance on the black gold before the planet deflates like an old football unless all the fracking does for it first. Electric power is already with us and hydrogen is just around the corner, but that doesn’t stop the boffins from seeking The Next Big Thing.

This time they’re having a go at bacteria. That’s right - fuel from bugs. Researchers from Exeter University and others elsewhere have been tinkering with bug DNA to enable the production of diesel from waste materials like plants, sewage and animal excretions. Other bacteria are being developed for petrol production. Apart from the motoring and industry benefits it could also further the reduction of waste. Of course, this isn’t the first time this has been tried and several scientific papers have been published but, in a small way at least, they might be on to something.

It’s early days. Right now it takes one hundred litres of bug mix and twenty four hours to make a teaspoon of diesel. The aim is to brew 100L of the former to make 100L of the latter for the science to make any economic sense. Apparently these engineered bacteria can double in number in twenty minutes so the whole idea seems feasible. Of course, anyone who watched Tomorrow’s World over the years will know that these inventions can flare up and burn out in fairly short order but the idea of a fuel that is not oil based or requiring fossil fuels makes a lot of sense. No doubt there are drawbacks - some of them itchy I’d suspect - as the amount of waste required would be huge as would the manufacturing plants.

It means we could keep the ever more frugal internal combustion engines and then maybe cars will remain cars and not devices. The mighty Shell organisation are supporting the research and it has been suggested that, as there are no exploration and drilling costs, the price of our fuels could come down. That could well be true except that roughly sixty percent of the fuel price is tax right now and we can’t see any government any time soon not jumping on that passing bandwagon!

Inevitably there are ramifications. What happens to the oil industry? What happens to the economies of the oil producing nations? What, most importantly, happens to any waste from the production process? It would be great to see a new and viable alternative fuel, especially one that runs in our existing technology so let’s hope all the big questions can be answered in the not too distant future.

In the meantime what can we do? Can we save bacteria? Children collect them. Perhaps they could engineer head lice. Schools could raise some useful extra funds. It’s a thought.

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