No one would accuse Craig Venter of harboring humble ambitions. In 2000 he decoded the human genome faster than anyone else—and he did it more cheaply than a well-funded government team. More recently he's set a new goal for himself: to replace the petrochemical industry. In a Maryland lab, he's manipulating chromosomes in the hopes of creating an energy bug—a bacterium that will ingest CO2, sunlight and water, and spew out liquid fuel that can be pumped into American SUVs. NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria spoke to Venter about the brave new world of biologically based fuels. Excerpts:
Zakaria: How are you going to create the fuel of the future?
Venter: We think multiple fuels of the future are going to come out of biology, by manipulating the genetic code of simple organisms to convert things like sugar or sunlight or carbon dioxide into fuels that people are very familiar with, like diesel fuel and gasoline.
What would a "refinery" that uses microorganisms to create fuel look like?
They're just large, bacteria-processing fermenters. People are familiar with this: that's how wine and beer are made. We're using similar processes, but ones that are designed to produce much more complex molecules than ethanol, and therefore fuels that will be much higher in energy content, and will work well with the existing energy infrastructure.
Would you have the same problem we have with corn ethanol, which is that you use large amounts of cropland?
We consider ethanol the first-generation fuel. We have second- and third-generation fuels that are much more advanced fuels, but they also come from plant sugars. We [are working on] a fourth-generation fuel, where the starting material is not sugar, but carbon dioxide.
People want to bury that CO2 in the ground or pump it into oil wells or coal beds. We want to use that CO2 and the carbon in it to make new fuels.
How close are you to creating an organism that can produce fuels in this way?
We think the first fuels are maybe one to two years away. We're definitely thinking in terms of years, not decades.
And your biologically produced fuels will work in today's cars and energy systems without modifying them?
Basically everything we're making will work in the existing infrastructure.
Even with ethanol you need to make some adjustments for cars to be able to run on them.
We don't know for sure, but we think our fuels won't require even the adjustment that ethanol does. One of the problems with ethanol, as you'll know if you've ever made a cocktail, is that it mixes very well with water. That's not a good property for fuel—all the water in ethanol turns into steam, which can damage engines. We've designed fuels that have very little water in them, so I think that will solve that problem.
You've said that a fuel-generating synthetic bacterium would be "a trillion-dollar bug." Is this a silver bullet that will replace the petrochemical industry?
The fuel-and-oil industry is a multi trillion-dollar industry, so I think there is room for dozens to a hundred solutions, each of which could create trillion-dollar industries. The same oil that gets burned as fuel is also the entire basis for the petrochemical industries, so our clothing, our plastics and our pharmaceuticals all come from oil and its derivatives. There are multiple billion- or trillion-dollar industries out there that new inventions will help spawn.
Once you've proved the science behind this, how will you be able to produce and distribute it on a massive scale?
Right now oil is being isolated around the globe, and there is a major effort in shipping, trucking and otherwise transporting that oil around to a very finite number of refineries. Biology allows us to make these same fuels in a much more distributed fashion. I envision maybe a million micro-refineries. Companies, cities and potentially even individuals could have a small refinery to make their own fuel. This would eliminate a lot of the distribution problems and associated pollution.
Do you want the federal government to be doing something that it's not doing these days?
Well, these days it's not doing much. If anything, what it's done in the past is create a disincentive for new technologies and new ideas—for example, by mandating that so much ethanol is made and that it has to come from corn sugar. Those are really negative incentives for people trying to get new things out there.
How would your technology affect the developing world?
Developing nations don't have a large dedicated infrastructure [for traditional fuel], so they might be able to just take these new technologies and implement them quite quickly.
But they would have to put in place an extensive system of microrefineries, right?
That's much cheaper. They can be built where the crop is produced. Brazil has done it well. They produce ethanol right at the site of the sugar production, so they don't have huge transportation costs, and they recycle a lot of the waste to help fertilize the next crop. I think there will be unique solutions for each country and each region. Places with lots of sunlight and near the ocean could be great sites for our fourth-generation fuels, where all we need is sunlight, seawater and carbon dioxide to create fuels. There are literally hundreds of different possible solutions out there that could be uniquely adapted to each country and each region based on what works for their economy.
The climate is such a complex system that it seems impossible to know what will happen when we start changing it. How can you know what impact biologically produced fuels will have?
Well, we know what's happening from adding CO2 to the atmosphere. We're playing a very dangerous game by adding more and more CO2—it's like playing Russian roulette with the planet. So reducing the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere is very clearly a positive thing. If humanity can match that challenge, it would be a very important step towards our long-term survival.