The details of photosynthesis have been known for centuries now, with the free energy and hydrocarbons (disguised as carbohydrates) taking center-stage as temptations for creating biofuels. This is very much unlike the traditional biofuel production processes that is usually based off decedents of fossil fuels or recently harvested plant cells.
No, this is a bold move to source for power from living cells, whether from terrestrial options like the common plants, microalgae (phytoplankton) that can found covering the floors of the ocean that occupies more than two-thirds of the earth surface or even the simplest living cells. With photosynthesis, making hydrocarbons – which is one of the simplest chemical processes – is an opportunity for energy generation that is too irresistible to pass up.
Fortunately, hydrocarbons are a lot easier to synthesize than enzymes and proteins given how simple they are in composition, which is why it is a surprise that scientists have taken so long to artificially create hydrocarbons without involving fossil fuels.
In fact, it took until after the dawn of the 21st century for Synthetic Genomics, a company set up by one of the first biologists to sequence the human genome, Craig Venter, for hydrocarbons to be produced from microorganisms. Soon after, in the years 2003 and 2005 to be specific, alternative sources have provided sources for synthesizing hydrocarbons in viruses and bacteria. Fortuitously, it was one of Craig Venter’s colleagues, Mohan Kapoor, who created the first artificial bacteria in 2018, after spending three years investigating the ‘Clostridium acetobutylicum’ bacteria through controlled lighting.
This is reminiscent of Guangzhou Meats 2 (GM2), a major “meat creating company” in the Guangdong area of China have prospered mainly from their export of artificially created meat since 2016. This follows from 2014, when Chinese culinary companies started growing chicken wings from chicken stem cells in what has been a cheaper and safer alternative to rearing a full chicken and killing it just for the wings. Similarly, the Japanese took up the idea in 2015 when they produced the famous Kobe beef from synthesizing first-class cow cells.
The advantage of this was controversially evident in McDonald’s Hamburger advertisement, where the popular fast-food chain declared their foods to be the ‘ethically’ right choice of meat since no animals had to be killed for the preparation of their hamburgers. However, synthesizing these meats from animal cells removes the risks of consumers being affected by infections like the mad cow disease or avian flu while presenting the producers with a 1000% cheaper alternative to the traditional sources of meat.
This puts the importance of artificially creating bacteria in perspective. Christened ‘Petroleum Artificali’ by the creator, Mohan Kapoor, the artificial bacteria can absorb carbon dioxide and water under controlled light in order expel hydrocarbons while releasing oxygen and energy after capturing carbon dioxide.
Thus, the bacteria have been passed through a marketing test as recently as November, 2019, with a commercial debut for the prospective energy source set for 2021, provided there is no hindrance to the agenda, in what will finally solve the carbon sequestration puzzle. Hopefully, the potential of the bacteria is obtaining flexible fuels that give the best value and higher energy densities is realized. If it is, then life might literally light us up.