High Potential?

The current economic situation is not exactly ideal: amongst many significant issues, one of the most concrete and pressing problems of today is the highly volatile energy market. Many current problem in the world (such as clean water, food, housing) could be solved almost completely, given that there is sufficient energy at hand[1].

Electric energy generation has seen a variety of approaches: some of them are quite childish, while others lack in public acceptance. Ultimately, only a sound mix of nuclear fusion and a select number of reasonable renewables such as solar or geothermal energy source (were available) will make sense.

However, electricity is not particularly easy to store, making it by far less attractive for any type of transport, especially individual transport. No technology that has been available so far has created a reasonable alternative to fossil hydrocarbon fuels: they have a sufficient energy density, are easy to handle, and the technology is very well understood. Alternatives such as canola-based diesel or ethanol-enriched gasoline are mostly carbon-ineffective ways of wasting money and alimenting lobbies.

Now, a new genetics based approach is making the rounds in various news outlets: LS9 is a South San Francisco company that succeeded in creating microorganisms that can produce hydrocarbons from renewable sugar sources. In other words, it will soon be possible to replace the back-yard compost heap with a small LS9 reactor that produces gasoline instead of dirt.

It will be interesting to see, if this technology can actually scale to a level where a large (and energy hungry) economy such as the U.S., China, or the E.U. can rely on this renewable fuel for a significant portion of their needs. But even if this approach is not fit for mass energy production, it still guarantees the available of hydrocarbon based products (i.e. plastics) in the post-fossil age.

[1] Obviously, in today’s world there is also in many cases a lack of political will, but that is – at least to some extend – again a result of scarce energy.

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