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Can Harnessed Microbes Meet “Sniff Test” To Compete with Fossil Fuels?

With concerns about global warming and rising oil prices, there is renewed impetus behind efforts to harness microorganisms as a way of reducing worldwide reliance on fossil fuels. Some companies are keen on exploiting photosynthetic microbes, whereas others are counting on other ways to marshal microbial metabolic prowess. Here are highlights describing several recent developments in which microbial activity is at the heart of the technology. However, critics continue to question whether these or other microbial- based technologies can meet critical "sniff tests," such as scale-up and efficiency, to make them competitive with fossil fuels.

"Helioculture" depends on genetically engineered photosynthetic microorganisms to convert "widely available"-but undisclosed-chemical nutrients along with brackish or seawater into fuels and "solar chemicals," according to Joule Biotechnologies of Cambridge, Mass. The raw material is not biomass, according to Joule's CEO Bill Sims. "To a certain extent, you can consider our feedstock to be carbon dioxide," he says. Solar energy is captured in a special "solar converter, [which] is a flat panel device and inside is a solution of nonfresh water, the nutrients, and highly engineered photosynthetic microorganisms." Fermentation products include ethanol and hydrocarbons, some of which could be used for making plastics.

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