Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.
The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.
The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.
“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure. We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”
University of Michigan researchers say they have transformed algae into biocrude that can be refined into fuel by pressure-cooking it for as little as a minute. Their efficient process transforms 65 percent of sample batches into biocrude, a considerably higher percentage than they had achieved by heating samples more slowly.
The results could mean a more efficient biomass-to-biofuel production process, an innovation needed to bring the renewable energy source down from its currently uncompetitive $20 per gallon.
See a video of the project after the jump.
Sometimes you just can’t wait for evolution to happen on its own.
Researchers at Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute are working on a project to make biofuels out of corn stalks and sawdust that can compete with petroleum-based products. To do it, they are heating the plant matter to produce a sugar-rich oil and then setting microbes to feed on the syrupy liquid to produce ethanol, which can be used as a fuel.
But they’ve found a bottleneck in the otherwise promising technique: There are chemicals in the syrup that slow the growth and activity of the microbes—species of bacteria, algae and yeasts—from efficiently breaking it down.