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LS9 and DOE researchers have modified the start-ups biofuel bacteria to produce many new compounds and to also be able to digest cellulose, found in plant waste.  (Source: University of Saskatchewan)

Bacterial or algae based biofuels could one day offer inexpensive fuel for land, air, and sea transportation needs -- no batteries or fuel cells required.  (Source: Dupont)
DOE has paired with LS9 to tweak and improve the company's genetic engineered design

The bacteria Escherichia coli is a very well studied organism and an ideal starting point for genetic engineering a microorganism to accomplish something useful.  Unsurprisingly, San Francisco, California-based biofuel startup LS9 chose the microorganism as the starting point for their biofuel push.  The E. Coli microbe, commonly found in feces, was modified by the startup to contain new enzymatic pathways that converted part of the microbe's sugary diet into hydrocarbon chains (biodiesel), which were then excreted.

Now the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute has paired with LS9 to tweak the microbe and further improve and validate the company's approach.  Despite the enormous potential, the technology is still in its nascent stages.  Describes Eric Steen, a researcher with JBEI’s Fuels Synthesis Division states, "There is still much more research to do before this process becomes commercially feasible."

To help improve the bacteria's prospects, the JBEI researchers -- Jay Keasling, the Chief Executive Officer for JBEI; Mr. Steen; Yisheng Kang; and Gregory Bokinsky -- threw their genetic toolkit at the bacteria, adding a host of novel pathways to produce additional structurally tailored fatty esters (biodiesel), alcohols and waxes directly from glucose.

With a greater array of products secured, the researchers next focused on converting sugars other than glucose.  To accomplish this the researchers added hemicellulases, special enzymes that digest the tough cellulose polysaccharides that typically go to waste. 

Writes Steen, "Engineering E. coli to produce hemicellulases enables the microbes to produce fuels directly from the biomass of plants that are not used as food for humans or feed for animals. Currently, biochemical processing of cellulosic biomass requires costly enzymes for sugar liberation. By giving the E. coli the capacity to ferment both cellulose and hemicellulose without the addition of expensive enzymes, we can improve the economics of cellulosic biofuels."

The results were published in the January 28, 2010 edition of the prestigious Nature journal.

Continuing ahead the researchers see much work to be done.  Foremost among the objectives are maximizing the speed and efficiency at which the microbes process the biofuels.

Some will certain question whether it's worth it for the government and private sector to be pouring so much money into funding biofuels research.  However, they must consider that biologically produced biofuels are unarguably one of the strongest and most promising cornerstones of energy research.  After all, the modern global industrial economy was built on the backbone of naturally fixed solar energy in the form of hydrocarbons (oil, coal, and natural gas), and being able to replenish these stocks in a cheap carbon neutral manner could solve mankind's energy problems in the short term -- and that could be enormously lucrative and beneficial.



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RE: Alright!
By Laereom on 1/28/2010 2:09:11 PM , Rating: 2
While I do agree in general that microbial biodiesel is the way to go, this does, as you mention, use grown fuel.

Basically, we take energy from the sun, fertilizers, tractors, and so forth, convert it to complex structures, then break those structures down and rebuild them into complex structures yet again.

The real promise is in companies like Sapphire Energy or Valcent who use bacteria or algae to convert sunlight and CO2 directly into crude petroleum or biodiesel. All you need is brackish water, sunlight, and some nice bubbly CO2, and you can have an almost fully automated oil pipeline from any desert of your choice. California could actually have an energy surplus, provided their environmentalist lobby doesn't disallow it on the grounds that it would harm the 1 lizard per square kilometer in the desert.


RE: Alright!
By nafhan on 1/28/2010 2:33:55 PM , Rating: 3
You're confusing this with aspects of Ethanol production. The ability of this bacteria to convert cellulose, rather than just simple sugars, means that waste plant matter (corn husks, wood chips, etc.) can be used. In other words, they're turning trash, not food, into fuel. So arguments about fertilizer, tractors, etc. don't generally apply.


RE: Alright!
By porkpie on 1/28/2010 3:35:35 PM , Rating: 2
Any plant able to do this on conomically-viable bais is going to require a goodly scale operation. It'll have SOME sort of emissions, and therefore -- no matter how small those emissions or how safe it really is -- it'll be opposed by the environmental lobby.


RE: Alright!
By nafhan on 1/28/2010 4:31:46 PM , Rating: 1
I'm pretty sure you could find an environmental group to oppose just about anything. The fact that something is overall better than the alternative doesn't seem to matter if it conflicts with their narrow area of interest.


RE: Alright!
By Sooticus on 1/28/2010 7:16:47 PM , Rating: 2
We could still end up stuffing up our farmland by removing too much carbon from the soil. All of that "trash" is kind of important to sustainable agriculture.

As long as the cellulose they use comes from plants that take carbon from the air rather than the soil, things should be pretty OK. This unfortunately rules out corn and some other big staple crops, but there are still plenty of sources...

But dont worry, I'm sure we'll find a way to take a brilliant concept and piece of technology such as this and completely stuff up its implementation through cost cutting , greed and political kickbacks...


RE: Alright!
By porkpie on 1/28/2010 9:39:56 PM , Rating: 2
"We could still end up stuffing up our farmland by removing too much carbon from the soil."

How so? Do you have any idea how many gigatonnes of carbon are in a single square mile? Worse, any carbon we take out of the soil would go into the air...where the extra CO2 would encourage plant growth, thereby putting more carbon right back into the soil.


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