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Human sewage--the next source of electricity?

Can microbes turn drain water into power? Yes, says a noted genetic scientist. And they can make jet fuel too.

SAN FRANCISCO--Synthetic Genomics is certainly teaching microbes some interesting tricks.

The company, which specializes in genetically manipulating microorganisms and creating new organisms to accomplish industrial tasks, has devised a fuel cell that can generate water or electricity from the stuff that goes down your drain, said founder J. Craig Venter at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.

J. Craig Venter
J. Craig Venter

"We have biological fuel cells driven by bacteria that take human wastewater and make drinking water or electricity out of it," he said. "We've been designing a number of organisms to try to replace traditional processes."

Synthetic Genomics is also tinkering on a microorganism that can produce a new type of jet fuel. The fuel is similar to ethanol and butanol but it won't absorb water, and thus it, potentially, will be more potent than ethanol or butanol. Venter admits he's not a big fan of ethanol, an alcohol distilled from plant matter that can be used for fuel.

"We've given up on ethanol. It is great for drinking, but it is not a good fuel," he said. "There are so many better compounds."

Synthetic Genomics also has a team that is optimizing algae as a feedstock for biofuels. The company has identified one species in which nearly half of the organism's mass is lipid. That's one greasy bug. Several companies, such as LiveFuels, are trying to come up with a way to produce large amounts of algae to be used as a feedstock for biodiesel. Some companies are using naturally occurring species of algae, while others are genetically optimizing algae.

A slew of companies--Synthetic Genomics, Fundamental Applied Biology and Gevo--have emerged in recent years to try and commercialize synthetic biology. The term refers to harnessing metabolic processes for industrial use. Microbes, after all, are just little chemical factories. They take in sugars, wood, milk and other substances and turn it into beer, cheese or ingredients for medicines. (The next time you open an expensive Burgundy, remember for a moment that it's just a big bottle of digestive remains of single-celled animals.)

Most of these companies are focused on coming up with ways to process existing biofuels or make new types of petroleum substitutes, preferably out of relatively worthless feedstocks like sewage, wastewater or wood chips. BP and Synthetic Genomics have also kicked off research to see if microorganisms found in oil fields can be exploited to get more oil out of the ground.

Some companies replicate the natural processes and aim not to use microorganisms at all. Others are manipulating the genetic code of these creatures and are making new ones.

"Within this century, people will sit down at their computers and design new plants to do a specific task," Venter said.