A group of scientists from both the public and private arenas has announced that they’ve successfully engineered a microbe that contains all the bits required to turn raw plant matter directly into diesel without any refinement or intermediary steps required.
The microbe is a modified strain of E. coli (that’s right, the same type of bugger that’s responsible for some nasty gut infections) that has been enhanced to produce tailor-made diesel molecules, alcohols and waxes directly from hemicellulose—one of the main components of plants. Not only can the microbial products be used for fuel, but the team is also setting their sights on directly producing environmentally-friendly—and industrially-necessary—surfactants, solvents and lubricants.
The researchers, including collaborators from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), employees from next-gen biofuel company, LS9, and scientists from UC Berkeley, have published their results in the January 28th issue of the prestigious and well-respected scientific journal, Nature—which gives some idea of how important this research is.
Apparently, the successful experimentation shows that the process can be altered to also produce substances that can be directly substituted for gasoline
LS9 has been working on this method for a number of years now—their slogan being “The best replacement for petroleum is petroleum.” The fuels made in this process are different from your standard biofuels in several key ways. They are essentially straight substitutes for the diesel and gasoline that you currently put in your car, which means no modifications necessary and that your brand new high-mileage diesel can run a 100% blend.
“It’s a nice milestone in the field of biofuels, and it has a lot of promise for actually being commercialized,” James Liao, a metabolic engineer and synthetic biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the journal Nature.
Although LS9 has made some major breakthroughs on their own, it took the collaboration with this new multi-institutional team to jump the last hurdle. In the end, the research team made more than a dozen genetic modifications to the E. coli. The major modifications included short-circuiting the microbe to produce large fatty-acid molecules and giving them the ability to convert these molecules directly into fuels and other chemicals. In order to make the process more efficient and able to use a large variety of plant materials, the researchers also inserted genes that allow the modified E. coli to produce enzymes for breaking down hemicellulose
Image Credits: JBEI