Published on December 11th, 2009 | by Nick Chambers
Deja Vu: Scientists Turn Pollution Directly Into Fuel Using The Sun
It’s been a busy Fall for the making-fuel-out-of-pollution-using-nothing-but-the-power-of-the-sun crowd. First we heard about a company that says it has succeeded in creating a system that uses engineered microbes in reactors out in the desert to eat carbon dioxide and poop out diesel and ethanol. Next we heard about a crazy mirror-ring contraption that reaches amazingly high temperatures to force carbon dioxide to give up one oxygen to make a precursor to fuel. And now…
Researchers at UCLA have engineered a bacteria that can eat carbon dioxide and burp out butanol—a liquid fuel that can be substituted into our existing fuel infrastructure without modification. Yep, that’s right, even your old jalopy can burn butanol without any side effects.
The team of scientists from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science took a cyanobacteria and genetically modified it to consume carbon dioxide and produce a gas which can easily be stripped off and converted to butanol. I’ve written about butanol as being a great substitute for gasoline before. The reaction the team is harnessing is powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.
To create their microbe frankenstein, they first took the cyanobacterium Synechoccus elongatus, and then increased the amount of a particular enzyme inside of it that helps to collect carbon dioxide. They then mushed in some genes from other organisms to make the engineered organism create the isobutyraldehyde gas which can be easily converted to butanol and other petroleum-based products. Apparently the engineered microorganisms can also directly create liquid butanol, but, according to the researchers, the process is easier if they are made to produce the gas instead.
The beauty of a process like this is that it avoids using energy intensive middle steps to create fuel—harvesting grass or refining and concentrating ethanol for instance. The organisms simply take carbon dioxide and turn it directly into a usable fuel.
“This new approach avoids the need for biomass deconstruction, either in the case of cellulosic biomass or algal biomass, which is a major economic barrier for biofuel production,” said UCLA professor and team leader James C. Liao, in a statement. “Therefore, this is potentially much more efficient and less expensive than the current approach.”
Given how many of these direct-fuel-from-pollution discoveries are currently being made, it’s certainly exciting to think that actual commercialization of them is not too far away. According to Liao, there are only a few obstacles to overcome in this realm. “We are continuing to improve the rate and yield of the production,” he said. “Other obstacles include the efficiency of light distribution and reduction of bioreactor cost. We are working on solutions to these problems.”
The research appears in the Dec. 9 edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology, available online.
Image Credit: UCLA