Biogasoline no image

Published on December 9th, 2008 | by Nick Chambers

51

Man-Made Bacteria Produces a Fuel That's Better Than Gas


Researchers reported Monday that they have re-engineered a common bacteria to produce complex and energy-dense alcohols similar to the hydrocarbon compounds found in fuels such as gasoline. This is the first time these types of alcohols have been synthesized by bacteria (man-made or otherwise) in the lab.

[social_buttons]

E. coli is normally found in the guts of most warm-blooded animals (yes, even yours) and if you’ve had an encounter with it that you remember, chances are you spent the weekend on the toilet wishing you were dead. Yet, while it’s true that some strains of e. coli can cause food poisoning in humans, most are actually quite harmless.

>> Welcome fellow Stumblers! This is just one of many articles Gas 2.0 puts out on a daily basis. If you like this post don’t forget to give it a thumbs up! And, if you have the time, please take a bit to look through the rest of our content too.

Not only are most strains harmless, they’re turning out to be key for making the next generation of biofuels. Scientists have been studying and isolating strains of e. coli for years that can synthesize various types of biofuels from many different sources, such as plant material and garbage.

But until now, these e. coli strains could only synthesize simple alcohols like ethanol. While this is a good start, the energy density and stability of these types of alcohols is relatively low, which leads to lower fuel economy in your car and the need for special handling equipment when compared to regular old gasoline.

To get around this problem, a research team housed at the University of California Los Angeles and headed by James Liao, has harnessed e. coli’s particularly active enzymatic production system and inserted some chromosomes into the bacteria’s DNA to “trick” it into making longer and longer chains of alchols with its existing “plumbing.” The result is that the modified e. coli can now produce complex and energy dense alcohols of 8 carbons in length. Blah.

So what the hell does that actually mean?

Gasoline is a mixture of many types of complex substances called long chain hydrocarbons. In a typical gasoline mixture these hydrocarbon chains range in length from 5 to 12 carbon atoms, with an average of about 8. The length of these chains is the secret to gasoline’s high energy density compared to its volume as well as the reason why it’s a relatively stable liquid. In comparison, ethanol is made up of alchol chains 2 carbons in length.

That’s why the ability of this new man-made e. coli strain to synthesize long-chain alcohols in the lab is so groundbreaking. If we could use this engineered e. coli to make fuel that was nearly indistinguishable from gasoline, but do it out of non-food plant material and garbage, that would be a game-changer, no?

Granted, the fuel produced by these organisms isn’t actually better than gas when it comes to energy density or stability. But when looked at as a whole, the fact that it’s not being mined out of the ground from organisms that have been dead and buried for hundred of millions of years is what, in my mind, makes it better than gas.

James Liao’s team has been working on this method for quite some time, and reported back in January on some initial breakthroughs. They say there is still much work to be done before the organism can start producing commercial quantities of fuel. The next step will be to get the process to a point where a development lab can take over and start optimizing it for commercial scale.

If you are so inclined, and either want to pay for access or have access through a university library, the study can be found in the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Update 12/10/2008: Minor changes were made to the post text to differentiate clearly between long chain alcohols and long chain hydrocarbons as per suggestions of the commenters.

Source: PhysOrg

Image Credit: Scanning electron micrograph image of e. coli bacteria is in the public domain and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • http://lessoctane.com Chris Petersen

    Thanks for the article. There is a lot of really interesting work in this area. For instance, Sapphire Energy (http://www.sapphireenergy.com/) out of San Diego is working in making gasoline from algae and there is some interesting work being done using yeast to convert sugar to gasoline as well.

  • http://lessoctane.com Chris Petersen

    Thanks for the article. There is a lot of really interesting work in this area. For instance, Sapphire Energy (http://www.sapphireenergy.com/) out of San Diego is working in making gasoline from algae and there is some interesting work being done using yeast to convert sugar to gasoline as well.

  • Doug

    Sounds promising, but what are the chances that this super e-coli could get loose and cause an epidemic? Sorry couldn’t resist a chance for a post apocalyptic moment. Seriously though, is there a chance that this could cause a mutation to an already nasty bug.

  • Doug

    Sounds promising, but what are the chances that this super e-coli could get loose and cause an epidemic? Sorry couldn’t resist a chance for a post apocalyptic moment. Seriously though, is there a chance that this could cause a mutation to an already nasty bug.

  • Nick Chambers

    Doug,

    That’s always the worry in the back of my head too. I’m not sure if it’s really something to worry about though. Although, they are forcing a bacteria to do something it never achieved on it’s own through evolution. I just don’t know. Scary to think that we can make synthetic bacteria now though.

  • Rob

    Doug n’ Nick, of course there’s always the risk of contamination, but the amount of effort and money invested in modifying this bacteria practically implies that there is an equal amount of effort made to keep this E. coli in a restricted (probably productive) environment.

    For decades the scientists have been making recombinant strains of m.o., and to this day I don’t recall any single human large scale contamination from those.

    What’s really much more dangerous than this is the large quantities of antibiotics the humans are releasing into the biosphere (by means of animal food/wastes), that can lead to an overall increase of natural antibiotic-resistant microbes…

  • Rob

    Doug n’ Nick, of course there’s always the risk of contamination, but the amount of effort and money invested in modifying this bacteria practically implies that there is an equal amount of effort made to keep this E. coli in a restricted (probably productive) environment.

    For decades the scientists have been making recombinant strains of m.o., and to this day I don’t recall any single human large scale contamination from those.

    What’s really much more dangerous than this is the large quantities of antibiotics the humans are releasing into the biosphere (by means of animal food/wastes), that can lead to an overall increase of natural antibiotic-resistant microbes…

  • http://www.mesecurity.com Gerardo

    Something that worries me, is those big containers that will hold E. Coli should we start using it. What will happen if it spills? Massive diarrhea explosions..

  • http://www.mesecurity.com Gerardo

    Something that worries me, is those big containers that will hold E. Coli should we start using it. What will happen if it spills? Massive diarrhea explosions..

  • Ugly American

    The chemistry in the post is wrong.

    Natural gas, gasoline and diesel are all mixtures of alkanes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkane

    Methanol, ethanol and butanol are all alcohols.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol

    Alcohols in this case can be thought of as partly oxidized (burned) alkanes. They will always deliver less energy and be more chemically reactive.

    Most Biodiesels in this case can be thought of as an alkane stuck to a light alcohol. They are almost as energy dense as diesel but burn almost as clean as alcohols. They are also more chemically reactive than alkanes but less then alcohols.

    The real problem with most of these engineered sources (pushed because they are patentable!) is that they must be fed sugar which means they depend on industrial agriculture. Algae on the other hand can and are already being grown on land that is not viable for human food and the left overs after the oil is extracted can be fed to animals and people without processing.

  • Ugly American

    The chemistry in the post is wrong.

    Natural gas, gasoline and diesel are all mixtures of alkanes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkane

    Methanol, ethanol and butanol are all alcohols.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol

    Alcohols in this case can be thought of as partly oxidized (burned) alkanes. They will always deliver less energy and be more chemically reactive.

    Most Biodiesels in this case can be thought of as an alkane stuck to a light alcohol. They are almost as energy dense as diesel but burn almost as clean as alcohols. They are also more chemically reactive than alkanes but less then alcohols.

    The real problem with most of these engineered sources (pushed because they are patentable!) is that they must be fed sugar which means they depend on industrial agriculture. Algae on the other hand can and are already being grown on land that is not viable for human food and the left overs after the oil is extracted can be fed to animals and people without processing.

  • Carl

    I can’t believe that you continue to carry forward the myth that oil is a “fossil” fuel.

    Teaching the “Oil as a fossil fuel” theory is as misguided as teaching creationism.

    Just how many dinosaurs do you think there were and how do you think they got to Saturn’s moon Titan to make all the oil that was found there?

  • Carl

    I can’t believe that you continue to carry forward the myth that oil is a “fossil” fuel.

    Teaching the “Oil as a fossil fuel” theory is as misguided as teaching creationism.

    Just how many dinosaurs do you think there were and how do you think they got to Saturn’s moon Titan to make all the oil that was found there?

  • Tim Cleland

    “Massive diarrhea explosions…”

    Ohhh, the humanity!

  • Tim Cleland

    “Massive diarrhea explosions…”

    Ohhh, the humanity!

  • Smilemon

    Not all E. Coli strains are pathogenic. This week in my Ap Bio class we are going to insert a plasmid into a strain of E. Coli and make it fluoresce under UV light. It’s pretty easy stuff to work with and not very dangerous at all.

    The problems with E. Coli are similar to the problems with Yeast. At what concentration of alcohol do they die off? If the concentration is low then distillation is the most expensive part of the process. Also, E. Coli mutate are incredibly fast rates. Keeping a stable culture, especially when using an unsterilized food source, would be very difficult.

    In short, probably any microbiologist could manufacture an E. Coli that will produce oil in lab conditions, but is it an effective method to scale up? Is it even possible with the current technologies?

    Personally I don’t thing so.

    -Kyle

  • Smilemon

    Not all E. Coli strains are pathogenic. This week in my Ap Bio class we are going to insert a plasmid into a strain of E. Coli and make it fluoresce under UV light. It’s pretty easy stuff to work with and not very dangerous at all.

    The problems with E. Coli are similar to the problems with Yeast. At what concentration of alcohol do they die off? If the concentration is low then distillation is the most expensive part of the process. Also, E. Coli mutate are incredibly fast rates. Keeping a stable culture, especially when using an unsterilized food source, would be very difficult.

    In short, probably any microbiologist could manufacture an E. Coli that will produce oil in lab conditions, but is it an effective method to scale up? Is it even possible with the current technologies?

    Personally I don’t thing so.

    -Kyle

  • Sidewinder

    First question, before worrying about epidemics, does this E. coli even have the potential to make humans or animals sick?

    Second, if this process were successful, what kind of waste products result from burning this fuel?

    Can we continue, in the medium-long term, to pollute the atmosphere with the byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion?

    Fifty thousand cavemen could say “Fire good” – 6 billion cavemen with internal combustion engines means the culture of burning is out of control.

  • Sidewinder

    First question, before worrying about epidemics, does this E. coli even have the potential to make humans or animals sick?

    Second, if this process were successful, what kind of waste products result from burning this fuel?

    Can we continue, in the medium-long term, to pollute the atmosphere with the byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion?

    Fifty thousand cavemen could say “Fire good” – 6 billion cavemen with internal combustion engines means the culture of burning is out of control.

  • Jamie

    Sorry to point this out, but…gasoline is composed almost entirely of hydrocarbons, not alcohols. Big difference chemically, less so as fuel.

  • Jamie

    Sorry to point this out, but…gasoline is composed almost entirely of hydrocarbons, not alcohols. Big difference chemically, less so as fuel.

  • http://twitter.com/jpat1eco jpat1eco

    Total cost to produce alternatives may not allow the current burn rate in misguided grant supported projects.

    The word grant being the poorly planned funding design.

    If these energy projects can get off the ground with low interest rate loan support & an ITC, providing a timely projected payback, then they both ill advised and to large in scale and scope.

    The cost of any meaningful enzymatic process is, and has been, a major problem most seem to forget.

  • http://twitter.com/jpat1eco jpat1eco

    Total cost to produce alternatives may not allow the current burn rate in misguided grant supported projects.

    The word grant being the poorly planned funding design.

    If these energy projects can get off the ground with low interest rate loan support & an ITC, providing a timely projected payback, then they both ill advised and to large in scale and scope.

    The cost of any meaningful enzymatic process is, and has been, a major problem most seem to forget.

  • RReppy

    The comment about having to feed the e.coli is an important one. Where do the sugars come from? I suppose the bacteria can convert garbage, but the fact that algae can use sunlight ultimately makes it superior.

    Obviously both avenues should be pursued, since our cities continue to produce mountains of garbage that it would be great if we could fuel our cars with, and vast acreages of agriculturally unsuitable land can be made into algae farms as well.

  • RReppy

    The comment about having to feed the e.coli is an important one. Where do the sugars come from? I suppose the bacteria can convert garbage, but the fact that algae can use sunlight ultimately makes it superior.

    Obviously both avenues should be pursued, since our cities continue to produce mountains of garbage that it would be great if we could fuel our cars with, and vast acreages of agriculturally unsuitable land can be made into algae farms as well.

  • michael mazur

    Re: Carl said on December 9th, 2008 at 11:42 pm.

    He spotted this too,” . .the fact that it’s not being mined out of the ground from organisms that have been dead and buried for hundred of millions of years . .”.

    Why do you go on with a patent falsehood, and i don’t care if you don’t publish this, but tell us why Uranus is a deep uniformly blue ?

    Methane, a whole planet covering ocean of it, isn’t it, and at -220 centigrade ?

    No dinosaurs there.

  • michael mazur

    Re: Carl said on December 9th, 2008 at 11:42 pm.

    He spotted this too,” . .the fact that it’s not being mined out of the ground from organisms that have been dead and buried for hundred of millions of years . .”.

    Why do you go on with a patent falsehood, and i don’t care if you don’t publish this, but tell us why Uranus is a deep uniformly blue ?

    Methane, a whole planet covering ocean of it, isn’t it, and at -220 centigrade ?

    No dinosaurs there.

  • Marty Flick

    I agree with Mr. Chambers – aside from which, ethanol burns cooler, cleaner. Let’s be sensitive and careful about what we want bacteria to do for us …

  • Marty Flick

    I agree with Mr. Chambers – aside from which, ethanol burns cooler, cleaner. Let’s be sensitive and careful about what we want bacteria to do for us …

  • Marty Flick

    Quick add: From the post – “If we could use this engineered e. coli to make fuel that was nearly indistinguishable from gasoline, but do it out of non-food plant material and garbage, that would be a game-changer, no?”

    Si – and I learned just tonight that a guy in the Southeast (I forget – Florida?) Is working on “Kudzunol” from the plant that’s become a nuisance out there. Truly, one guy’s nuisance can be another’s pot ‘o’ gold!

  • Marty Flick

    Quick add: From the post – “If we could use this engineered e. coli to make fuel that was nearly indistinguishable from gasoline, but do it out of non-food plant material and garbage, that would be a game-changer, no?”

    Si – and I learned just tonight that a guy in the Southeast (I forget – Florida?) Is working on “Kudzunol” from the plant that’s become a nuisance out there. Truly, one guy’s nuisance can be another’s pot ‘o’ gold!

  • Uncle B

    For perspective, do we have enough food for Algae or E Coli to make significant amounts of fuel? We know U.S. is Radiant Resource Rich, with enough Solar energy in the South Western U.S. to replace all the oil we currently burn, loses in processes included! Why don’t we feed bugs and algae H2 in an effort to combine it with the C in atmospheric CO2 for a conveniently usable fuel to replace oil, then design and perfect engines for the new, improved, American produced fuel?

  • Uncle B

    For perspective, do we have enough food for Algae or E Coli to make significant amounts of fuel? We know U.S. is Radiant Resource Rich, with enough Solar energy in the South Western U.S. to replace all the oil we currently burn, loses in processes included! Why don’t we feed bugs and algae H2 in an effort to combine it with the C in atmospheric CO2 for a conveniently usable fuel to replace oil, then design and perfect engines for the new, improved, American produced fuel?

  • Stop preventing evolution

    Ok this pisses me off every time something good comes out of anything there are trolls lurking around that know nothing saying “OMG were going to die SUPER BUGS.”

    Go crawl back in your hole.

    The first time you saw electricity did you say OMG someone is going to be killed by a death ray.

    Secondly the byproducts are not going to be worst then coal or garbage that thousands of plants burn to make fuel.

    Now if you have a degree in microbiology then by all means go ahead and argue that were all going to die from mutated E. Coli. Or you could trust that the people who were smart enough to genetically engineer bacteria to create complex hydrocarbons are smart enough not to eat what they make.

  • Stop preventing evolution

    Ok this pisses me off every time something good comes out of anything there are trolls lurking around that know nothing saying “OMG were going to die SUPER BUGS.”

    Go crawl back in your hole.

    The first time you saw electricity did you say OMG someone is going to be killed by a death ray.

    Secondly the byproducts are not going to be worst then coal or garbage that thousands of plants burn to make fuel.

    Now if you have a degree in microbiology then by all means go ahead and argue that were all going to die from mutated E. Coli. Or you could trust that the people who were smart enough to genetically engineer bacteria to create complex hydrocarbons are smart enough not to eat what they make.

  • Jeff

    Hello, everybody… I would just like to say a few things… I know this probably isn’t the time or place to post in rebutting people but I will, just because I feel the need. First, on the “Mutant E. Coli breakout” Should it happen it will be treated, simple as that… I’ve lived through more pain than people can imagine and it might do the American citizens some good to suck it up and grow some cohones(sp?) in that I mean, the more scared we are of something the slower we are going to be at bettering ourselves. A good example of this: Suing a video game company for your kids shooting someone because they found it fun in a video game is not the video game maker’s fault. It’s terrible parenting skills… Take your kids out and show them how to shoot a gun, show them the damage it can do and explain to them how bad it is to shoot someone… Its very simple! (personal opinion of course)

    Second (I’m sorry this is getting long), Just because there is oil on another planet doesn’t mean that there were dinosaurs on it… As hard as it is for some people to conceive, CARBON is the main building block of EVERYTHING, and those planets could have had their own set of Carbon based lifeforms (different from our own) who then died and (over time) formed oil… And despite the temperatures on some other planets life could have surely, once upon a time, thrived there. There are bacteria on the ocean floor that can withstand temperatures of up to 400*C or 800*F, pretty extreme temperatures right? Is it so hard to to believe that there could have been lifeforms that could have adapted to those temperatures elsewhere? But then again you would have to believe in the big bang theory… Maybe its just me but I feel as though something is limiting human advancement… But by all means don’t take my word for it, look things up for yourself, educate yourself, and make your own opinions on the matter, but do yourselves and everyone else a favor and have an open mind about things…

  • Jeff

    Hello, everybody… I would just like to say a few things… I know this probably isn’t the time or place to post in rebutting people but I will, just because I feel the need. First, on the “Mutant E. Coli breakout” Should it happen it will be treated, simple as that… I’ve lived through more pain than people can imagine and it might do the American citizens some good to suck it up and grow some cohones(sp?) in that I mean, the more scared we are of something the slower we are going to be at bettering ourselves. A good example of this: Suing a video game company for your kids shooting someone because they found it fun in a video game is not the video game maker’s fault. It’s terrible parenting skills… Take your kids out and show them how to shoot a gun, show them the damage it can do and explain to them how bad it is to shoot someone… Its very simple! (personal opinion of course)

    Second (I’m sorry this is getting long), Just because there is oil on another planet doesn’t mean that there were dinosaurs on it… As hard as it is for some people to conceive, CARBON is the main building block of EVERYTHING, and those planets could have had their own set of Carbon based lifeforms (different from our own) who then died and (over time) formed oil… And despite the temperatures on some other planets life could have surely, once upon a time, thrived there. There are bacteria on the ocean floor that can withstand temperatures of up to 400*C or 800*F, pretty extreme temperatures right? Is it so hard to to believe that there could have been lifeforms that could have adapted to those temperatures elsewhere? But then again you would have to believe in the big bang theory… Maybe its just me but I feel as though something is limiting human advancement… But by all means don’t take my word for it, look things up for yourself, educate yourself, and make your own opinions on the matter, but do yourselves and everyone else a favor and have an open mind about things…

  • Dave

    Firstly, ‘Fossil Fuels’ come largely from pre-historic plant life, but the important point is that it consists largely of long-chain stuff, some of which has then broken down even further to give us natural gas.

    Out in space, the reverse is usually true: in the sun, Hydrogen is first fused into Helium, then into denser elements. The fact that some planets have lots of short-chain hydrocarbons is no surprise – thats what you tend to get when there are lots of volatile chemicals around.

    Finally, can someone explain this desire to produce a fuel that is identical to Petrol/Gasoline?

    Burning Ethanol is a much cleaner process than anything other than pure Hydrogen.

  • Dave

    Firstly, ‘Fossil Fuels’ come largely from pre-historic plant life, but the important point is that it consists largely of long-chain stuff, some of which has then broken down even further to give us natural gas.

    Out in space, the reverse is usually true: in the sun, Hydrogen is first fused into Helium, then into denser elements. The fact that some planets have lots of short-chain hydrocarbons is no surprise – thats what you tend to get when there are lots of volatile chemicals around.

    Finally, can someone explain this desire to produce a fuel that is identical to Petrol/Gasoline?

    Burning Ethanol is a much cleaner process than anything other than pure Hydrogen.

  • http://jeri-ryan.com Sean

    Does anyone have any comprehension how many dinosaurs it would take to produce the oil that exsist(ed) here?

    Biomass, grasses, trees, peat, ferns, foliage trillions of tons of it have been breaking down for millions of years. This is the majority source of oil on this planet.

    Dinosaurs, animals? a very small contribution.

  • http://jeri-ryan.com Sean

    Does anyone have any comprehension how many dinosaurs it would take to produce the oil that exsist(ed) here?

    Biomass, grasses, trees, peat, ferns, foliage trillions of tons of it have been breaking down for millions of years. This is the majority source of oil on this planet.

    Dinosaurs, animals? a very small contribution.

  • James

    Leaving the risk of bacteria contamination, chemistry and agricultural dependancy aside, think about the ramifications of being able to easily create substances such as gasoline. People will continue to use their cars, polute the environment and ruin the world for future generations. This just proves that humanity will put extreme amounts of effort into being lethargic and NOT changing. Just make a lifestyle change and leave the spoiled consumerist brat mentality behind.

    Criss je desteste les enfants.

  • James

    Leaving the risk of bacteria contamination, chemistry and agricultural dependancy aside, think about the ramifications of being able to easily create substances such as gasoline. People will continue to use their cars, polute the environment and ruin the world for future generations. This just proves that humanity will put extreme amounts of effort into being lethargic and NOT changing. Just make a lifestyle change and leave the spoiled consumerist brat mentality behind.

    Criss je desteste les enfants.

  • Doug

    Tais Tois Jacques!

  • Doug

    Tais Tois Jacques!

  • Drob

    gas companies will say no, like here did: http://href.hu/x/8eso

  • Drob

    gas companies will say no, like here did: http://href.hu/x/8eso

  • Rick

    This would be a game-changer, except that the greatest force opposing it is not lack of infrastructure or popular will, but greed, which is seemingly far stronger than anything else in this world. (Referring of course to Big Oil.)

  • Pingback: Bacteria can make branched longer chain alcohols | The Big Biofuels Blog

  • Pingback: Bacteria can make branched longer chain alcohols | The Big Biofuels BlogThe Big Biofuels Blog

  • http://www.oferta-rca.ro/ Adrian Pusca

    too hard to start using it. Gas company …… ?

Back to Top ↑