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Hydrocarbon Fuel On-Demand

I almost predicted the iPod.

I remember burning my first cd from music downloaded from the internet.  It took like 2 days.  I predicted a bold new future for the music industry where customers would go to music stores in the mall – like cd stores of the time – and instead of racks of cds there would be computers with hard drives filled with music.  Instead of buying albums, you would purchase a selection of songs, which would then be burned onto a cd.  The songs would cost a dollar or two since all the costs in manufacturing and distribution would be minimized.

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Of course, I didn’t have the foresight to see that eventually the music store in the mall would become obsolete as people would download music at home to their own personal computer, and that the cd would be replaced by mass storage devices that could hold thousands of cds worth of music and fit in your pocket.

So, I was off by a little bit, but I learned an important lesson.  In the 21st century, err on the side of the unimaginable when predicting the future.

For example, check out the latest provocative cover of Atlantic Magazine:

I haven’t read the entire article yet, but the basic premise is that technology is unlocking abundant reserves of hydrocarbons to the point that we will never run out of oil.  It was only a few years ago that serious people were writing books and magazine articles about peak oil and the imminent depletion of these finite resources.

While fracking and other technologies that are unlocking hydrocarbon abundance are certainly the flavor of the moment, even bigger things are on the horizon in my opinion.

In a previous post on George Church’s work in genetic engineering, I had this to say, “When George Church isn’t turning DNA into an alternative to the hard drive, he is engineering e coli bacteria to produce diesel fuel.  They have already successfully engineered e coli to do this on a lab scale, and they are now moving to produce diesel fuel on an industrial scale in the near future.”

Just today, I came across another story where similar research is being conducted in the UK by an R&D branch of Shell Oil:

John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.

As promising as fracking and tar sand extraction are, they are kind of like moving from cassette tapes to cds.  My mistake in predicting the future of music was that I didn’t predict how information technology wouldn’t just reinvent the end product – the songs that were downloaded, but the entire supply chain of the music industry along with its capital structure.

Atlantic Magazine probably has it right.  We aren’t going to run out of hydrocarbon fuel.  The market for hydrocarbon fuels that are mined from deep beneath the earth will likely continue to exist for a long time.  After all, you can still buy cds at Walmart.

However, if George Church and John Love have their way, we are likely to see consumer grade flat panels that contain an enclosed colony of genetically modified e. coli that produce diesel fuel as a byproduct of their metabolic processes.  The distribution network of drilling rigs, tankers, pipelines, trains, semi-trucks, and gas stations will give way to bio-fuel on demand cells that you install at the end of your driveway or on your roof.

About Rajiv

I am a venture capitalist. I am currently focused on bio-tech, genetic engineering, and merging these fields with big data. I am not always political, but when I am, I am a libertarian.

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