"Ten years ago I could never have imagined I'd be doing this," says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. "I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to — especially the ones coming out of business school — this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into."

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs — very, very small bacteria — so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as wood chips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us.

Not that Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls "renewable petroleum." After that, he grins, "it's a brave new world."

Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil from Saudi Arabia obsolete.

"All of us here — everyone in this company and in this industry — are aware of the urgency," Pal says.

• Click here to read the rest of this story at the Times of London.