Diesel refined from crude oil could be replaced or augmented by a near-identical fuel produced by genetically-modified E. coli bacteria, according to an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, said: “Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel.
“The idea is that vehicle manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn’t even notice the difference – it would just become another part of the fuel production chain.
“What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required. They are bio-fossil-fuels if you like.”
To create the fuel, the researchers, who were funded by Shell and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, used a strain of E. coli that usually takes in sugar and then turns it into fat. Using synthetic biology, the team altered the bacteria’s cell mechanisms so that the sugar was converted to synthetic fuel molecules instead.
By altering the bacteria’s genes, they were able to transform the bugs into fuel-producing factories, but productivity is currently very low.
Professor Love admitted it would take about 100 litres of bacteria to produce a single teaspoon of the fuel.
“Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” he said. “We’ve got a timeframe of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it.”