Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Alchemy in our time

Scientific research just keeps amazing us. But turning discoveries into practical realities sometimes turns out to be the hard part.

It's not quite lead-into-gold, but researchers at Britain's University of Exeter are reporting a transformation almost as remarkable: by genetic manipulation they have created a strain of E coli bacteria that converts sugar into something almost identical to diesel fuel.

Starting with E coli may prove to be a public relations coup for Prof John Love and his fellow researchers. Although most strains are harmless, this bacterium has had bad press, because one type is responsible for human gastroenteritis, among other ailments. Prepared foods are often recalled when E coli contamination is found.

So converting this little monster into a fuel factory is a stroke of genius.

To be sure, there's no reason for panic in Opec capitals: Prof Love and his colleagues have accomplished this result in a test tube, but the research and engineering needed to convert this lab-bench success into an industrial process will doubtless take a long time.

The last breakthrough in biofuel, after all, has fizzled rather badly, because politics got involved. Ethanol from corn has become a cash spigot for farmers in the US and elsewhere, but the actual cost per unit of energy is still uneconomic, and the change has elevated some grain prices, no benefit in a hungry world. Real life is more complicated than the lab.

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Supporters of unseen India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, wave as he arrives to file his election nomination papers in Varanasi. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP Photo

Best photography from around the world April 24

The National View's photo editors pick the best of the day from around the world

 Sarah Geronimo. Courtesy: FLASH Entertainment

Sarah Geronimo brings her star power to Abu Dhabi this weekend

Ahead of her Abu Dhabi concert on Thursday night, we take a look at the Filipina singer Sarah Geronimo’s extraordinary career.

 Visitors look at the medieval inventor Al Jazari’s water-powered Elephant Clock. The clock is on show at the 1001 Inventions exhibition at Sharjah Expo Centre. Photos Antonie Robertson / The National

1001 Inventions: in praise of Islam’s gifts to the world

Down the centuries, from camera obscura to designing a sail that allowed early seafarers to tack into the wind, Muslim scientists have made many significant contributions to science. Rym Ghazal and Asmaa Al Hameli visit an exhibition in Sharjah that celebrates those contributions

 Mumbai Indians fans cheer they team on the opening match between Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2014 at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National

Earn cash back with the IPL cricket in the UAE

Dunia finance promotion allows cricket lovers to earn up to 6 per cent unlimited cash back on any spending they make on a day when an IPL match is played in the UAE.

 Iranian workers at the Iran Khodro auto plant in Tehran on March 18. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

Iran’s love of cars survives devastating sanctions

Sanctions and energy subsidy reductions might have hurt the Iranian automotive industry. But car makers at one factory are still optimistic, Yeganeh Salehi reports from Tehran

 This comparison image shown on Reddit annotated the objects with vehicles from the movies.

Disney confirms that Star Wars: Episode 7 is filming in Abu Dhabi desert

Disney yesterday confirmed that the filming of Star Wars: Episode 7 is taking place in the desert in Abu Dhabi.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National