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Re-inventing Oil: The Unstoppable Coming World of Synthetic Biology

If petroleum didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Nothing else comes close to oil when it comes to energy density, ease of handling, flexibility, convenience, cost, or scale…

…“There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish,” wrote Vaclav Smil in 2008….Smil, a polymath, prolific author on energy issues, and distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba, believes that while a “world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable … getting there will demand not only high cost but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will unfold across decades, not years.” _The Persistence of Oil

Al Fin energy analysts agree with Vaclav Smil on both counts: Re-inventing oil is a good idea, and the transition from oil to a re-invented oil will take decades.

Synthetic biology is in the process of changing all the rules for making things. We already make life-saving medicines with some of the same tools that synthetic biologists are using. We are evenmaking vehicular tyres using these tools. But we have just gotten started.

Khosla Ventures has started a new $1 billion fund that is specialising in synthetic biology ventures, and related technologies. The US Department of Energy is also funding synthetic biology projects with the aim of re-inventing oil creation. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics is being funded by Exxon Mobil to the tune of roughly $500 million to accomplish the same feat.

Oil is going to be around for a long time, because it is so very good at doing the things that humans need it to do. It takes nature between 100,000 and 1,000,000 years to make oil from once-living matter. Synthetic organisms should be able to produce oil in split seconds, using cheap raw materials plus sunshine or other readily available energy supply.

Why bother with all that high tech science when we can grow abundant algal biomass, and turn it into fuel using pyrolysis and IH2 treatment? Simple economics. Pyrolysis + IH2 requires a lot of energy and hydrogen. If you design your synthetic organisms properly, they can function at low temperatures and obtain their hydrogen from water. 

The only way for advanced thermochemical biofuels conversion to compete with synthetic biology, is for the thermochemical process heat and hydrogen to be supplied by nuclear reactors. That approach is indeed likely to coexist with advanced synthetic biology fuels in the future.