The Daily Bruin
UCLA’s student newspaper since 1919
Alternative fuel research isn’t all “green”
By staff writer Alan Quatermain
August 24
How did you get to class today?

For most UCLA students, gasoline did the work of moving them from where they woke up to where they needed to be. But one UCLA graduate student is hoping to change that.

Christina Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Chen at the UCLA-CaliPetro Bioenergy Institute, is using bacteria to produce a biodiesel that doesn’t come from petroleum.

“Our goal is to make a substitute for gasoline using the energy of the sun,” Gonzalez says. “In the lab we’ve altered the DNA of some common bacteria to let them make isobutanol, which can be used as a fuel in certain diesel engines.”

The bacteria are hard at work on the rooftop of Gonzalez’s building, using photosynthesis to capture the energy of the sun.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Gonzalez admits. “Our bacteria can make fuel, but we have to feed them. So it still costs more energy to produce than we get out in the end.”

Nevertheless, you may have seen the lab’s alternative fuel test vehicle, a neon green Mini Cooper wrapped in UCLA ads. Occasionally, Gonzalez gets the car for a weekend.

“It’s great fun,” she says. “People have loads of questions about what we’re trying to do.”

The Bioenergy Institute is partially funded by CaliPetro. The relationship between UCLA and the oil industry giant has been controversial from the beginning, and some of the projects underway are unpopular with environmental activists.

“CaliPetro’s number one goal is to pump more oil,” says a Greenpeace spokesman. “Sure, the Chen lab at UCLA is doing some work on biofuels. But their main project is about extracting more fossil fuels. Using their bacteria in tar sands could drastically increase carbon production and worsen global warming.”

Christina Gonzalez doesn’t dispute this. “Our job is to find new energy sources that free America from its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The most obvious source is the gigantic low-quality oil fields called tar sands that we have right here in the western hemisphere. I designed my bacteria to break down underground petroleum and turn it into natural gas, which is easy to collect.”

How about gasoline? Could her bacteria eat that?

“In theory, yes, but only deep underground where there’s no oxygen. My bacteria are killed by air.”

So there’s no way these new bacteria could help themselves to lunch from a car’s gas tank?

“Absolutely not,” Gonzalez says.

UCLA graduate student Christina Gonzalez wanted to use biotechnology to free America from its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Instead, an act of eco-terrorism unleashes her genetically-modified bacteria into the fuel supply of Los Angeles, making petroleum useless. With the city paralyzed and slipping toward anarchy, Christina must find a way to rein in the microscopic monster she created. But not everyone wants to cure the petroplague—and some will do whatever it takes to spread it. From the La Brea Tar Pits to university laboratories to the wilds of the Angeles National Forest, Christina and her cousin River struggle against enemies seen and unseen to stop the infection before it’s too late.