While petrol and diesel release carbon dioxide that has been stored deep within the Earth, biofuels are said to be carbon neutral because they release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the plants they are made from absorbed.
Until now, biofuels have been made up of hydrocarbon chains of the wrong size and shape to be truly compatible with most modern engines – they’ll work, but only inefficiently, and over time they will corrode the engine.
However scientists from the University of Exeter have announced in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.that they have created a strain of bacteria that can produce fuel. Researchers genetically modified E. coli , the bacteria traditionally associated with food poisoning outbreaks, to convert sugar into an oil that is almost identical to conventional diesel.
John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.”We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells,” says Love.The team now needs to work out how to scale-up the project to mass-produce hydrocarbons.
If the process can be scaled up, this synthetic fuel could be a viable alternative to fossil fuel. Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, said: “Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel.
“The idea is that car manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn’t even notice the difference – it would just become another part of the fuel production chain.”
But most forms of biodiesel and bioethanol that are currently used are not fully compatible with modern engines. Fractions of the substances (between 5-10%) need to be blended with petroleum before they can be used in most engines.
However, the fuel produced by the modified E. coli bacteria is different. Love explained: “What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required.
“They are bio-fossil-fuels if you like.” To create the fuel, the researchers, who were funded by the oil company Shell and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, used a strain of E. coli that usually takes in sugar and then turns it into fat.
Using synthetic biology, the team altered the bacteria’s cell mechanisms so that the sugar was converted to synthetic fuel molecules instead. By altering the bacteria’s genes, they were able to transform the bugs into fuel-producing factories. However, the E. coli did not make much of the fuel.
Professor Love said currently it would take about 100 litres of bacteria to produce a single teaspoon of the fuel. “Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” he said.
“We’ve got a time frame of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it. “Paul Freemont of Imperial College London describes the work as a “beautiful study”. He says it illustrates the potential of using a similar approach for bio-manufacturing not only biofuels but other chemicals we currently source from petroleum, such as those used to make plastics, solvents or detergents
Sources include: Alternative Energy News, The New Scientist, BBC News
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