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Superhero oil-burping algae will save the world

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"Rely on the sun and the other eco-friendly things that Mother Earth has given us. We need to stop being dependent on the corrupting effect that is oil now!" – HuffPost Super User "ProgressivePicon86"

The next energy revolution is coming - and promises the biggest disruption since the industrial revolution.

Today we assume that oil is a finite resource. The "Peak Oil" argument, for example, is not that it runs out, but that conventional sources run down, and it becomes prohibitively expensive. This obliges us to think about re-ordering society. The other assumption is that the exploitation of fossil fuels creates the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, changing the climate. Along with this, too, are arguments for re-ordering society. But with the next generations of fuels, these assumptions go out of the window. Policies based on these assumptions lose their relevance and appeal.

This promises a fundamental change in how we think about man, industry and nature. Just as Karl Marx anticipated a future of machines, where manual labour had been replaced by automation, we need new political thinking.

Replacing oil, however, isn't so simple. The problem is that oil is a terrifically energy-dense material, and useful in many other ways. Entire industries are founded on the byproducts alone, such as fertilisers and plastics. We tend to take this for granted.

But what if oil could be created in your backyard? Or by your children as a school project? What if we thought of oil as a renewable energy? What if it was a low-carbon renewable? With cheap hydrocarbons it becomes just that, and within 15 years much of our oil will be produced this way: it's simply an open bet on who'll get there first.

Algae: the new bio-engineering workhorse

“We can engineer, humbly, like we have been domesticating plants for a long time," one scientist told me. “We engineer the algae to do biochemically something quite different to what they’d be doing in the wild: they still take photons from the sun, and via biology, turn it into a useful captured molecule. We have them doing something similar but with stunning efficiency: it’s 40 to 100 times more efficient,” says Elbert Branscomb, chief scientist to the US Department of Energy.

There are (at least) around 60 startups hoping to produce oil and diesel biologically, with accelerated fermentation or photosynthesis techniques to produce an end product that is 100 per cent compatible with the existing infrastructure. Some, for example, tweak the algae to make them do photosynthesis anything from 40 to 100 times more efficiently. LS9 received $30m in funding and has a one-step process to convert sugar to create renewable petrol. It expects production within five years. If oil prices remain high, say over $40 or $50 a barrel, then it's viable.

Craig Venter is proposing an even more radical way of creating biofuels. He's genetically modifying algae to take CO2 and convert it to renewable, compatible fuels. The algae can't survive in normal conditions, but need around 20 times the concentrations of the trace gas to start work. The idea is that CO2 will be pumped out from power stations directly into his plants.

After years of watching synthetic hydrocarbons with suspicion, Exxon has put substantial funding behind Venter to the tune of $600m. Venter doesn't see a return within 10 years, but it has obvious appeal to those still concerned with climate change, and who realise it's a low priority for BRIC countries (including China and India) that are determined to industrialise as quickly as possible. Venter's renewable oil kills two birds with one stone: removing CO2 and creating a low-carbon renewable alternative to excavating the stuff.

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