Brussels, 06 Oct 2006
According to the latest climate models, global warming is occurring faster than previously thought, making the EU's bid to switch to renewable energy sources all the more pressing. German scientists have uncovered a novel way of using genetically modified bacteria to produce bio-diesel which could make bio-fuels a more feasible alternative in the future.
German researchers at the University of Münster have used genetically modified bacteria to produce a form of bio-diesel, known as 'micro-diesel', from plant matter. The scientists developed a fuel-refining strain of the common bacteria Escherichia coli by modifying it with genes taken from two other bacteria species. "Bio-diesel is a good alternative energy source and a substitute for petroleum-based diesel fuel," Alexander Steinbüchel, whose team created the new form of the fuel, was quoted as saying. "But the current method of production is still costly."
In theory, bio-fuels are a sustainable alternative to fossil-based fuels. They can help offset greenhouse gas emissions because they are made from organisms – i.e. plants – that naturally remove CO2 from the atmosphere. However, current techniques are not only expensive but carry other drawbacks and costs. The machinery used to harvest the plants used to produce the bio-fuel also consumes energy and current processes usually require a toxic chemical catalyst.
Land is another issue. Acreage set aside to grow crops for bio-fuels cannot be used to grow food for the ever-burgeoning population of the world. The new GM bacteria does not require a chemical catalyst and holds out the promise of, one day, being able to produce bio-diesel from plant waste, reducing the amount of land needed specifically to grow crops for fuel.
Biomass critical mass
At the end of last year, the European Commission released its ambitious Biomass Action Plan which seeks to promote efforts to develop and use renewable bio-energy technologies. Under the slogan 'doing more with less', this spring the Commission published its Green Paper on energy efficiency which outlines a two-pronged approach to reducing energy consumption in Europe. It seeks to enhance energy efficiency and develop technologies based on renewable fuels, particularly bio-fuels.
The Biomass Action Plan aims to knock almost a tenth off the Union's oil imports, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 200 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent and create more than a quarter of a million jobs. It will do so by doubling the use of biomass (such as agricultural crops and organic waste) in the Union's energy mix by 2010. But, as the German researchers clearly show, exploiting more biomass requires continued investment in top-quality R&D. Several EU-backed technology platforms, such as Plants for the Future, have formulated plans for boosting bio-energy research.