Unfortunately, many of the biofuels currently being produced may cause problems for the environment. The production of these biofuels is not straightforward either, and requires many steps to get a final product that can be used. They require treatment with petroleum products, which means they may not be sustainable in the long run. In addition, growing corn crops to be used for biofuel production is causing increased costs for food, and increasing the land required for farming. The amount of land available to produce sufficient corn for both biofuel production and food is not adequate. Although many have suggested plant sources that grow more quickly that corn, require less space to grow, and will not affect the food supply, these sources have not been utilized extensively for biofuel production. Corn still remains the predominant choice for creating biofuels. Lastly, biofuels may not be structurally similar to conventional petroleum products, which would require upgrades to existing machinery in order for the fuel to be usable. For these reasons, other sources of biofuel are being investigated by energy scientists.
Recently, researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with Shell, have engineered a strain of E. coli bacteria that can produce diesel fuel. This fuel is very similar in composition to traditional diesel fuel, and does not require treatment with petroleum products. Because it is so similar to traditional diesel fuel, systems that use diesel would not need to be upgraded in order to be able to use the fuel. This is a huge benefit over other biofuels, such as those produced from corn ethanol, because they do not need to be mixed with petroleum. The diesel biofuel produced by the E. coli could simply replace the conventional diesel fuel currently in use.
E. coli and other bacteria can transform organic molecules such as sugar into lipids which are inserted into the cell membrane. Lipids and diesel fuel have very similar structures. They are long chains of hydrogen and carbon, termed hydrocarbon molecules. The process of making lipids in E. coli has been modified by the researchers so that instead of producing normal lipids, the bacteria produce diesel fuel. So far, the researchers only have a small number of bacteria producing small quantities of the diesel. However, bacteria are often used in large scale production of many pharmaceuticals. Increasing the number of bacteria producing diesel and the yield would be a similar process. Once the researchers have determined that the diesel fuel being produced is adequate to be used in vehicles and industrial settings, scaling up production should be a straightforward process.
As more people become aware of the damages to the environment traditional energy sources cause, the development of cleaner, more sustainable energy becomes more important. As economies around the world begin to recover from the recessions of a few years ago, citizens will most likely be buying more products and traveling more, which will require more energy. Sustainable energy sources will become more important as demand increases, and supply decreases. In addition, laboratory produced diesel fuel and other clean, sustainable energy sources will enhance economic recovery, as fuel and energy prices will be less dynamic. The field of energy science is growing rapidly, to help keep the energy supply sufficient for human and technological growth.