Friday, January 29, 2010

Microbes produce fuels directly from biomass

This is an exciting time when so many breakthroughs are being made which beckon with a bright future of limitless clean energy. There is also this bleak future we're facing where dependency on fossil fuels will doom our society to death and destruction of the wonderful lifestyle we currently enjoy. Somewhere between those two extremes is where our actual future is. If a new biotech company, LS9, has anything to say about it our future is closer to the brightness of limitless clean energy than the darkness of peak-oil-post-apocalyptic doom. LS9 has developed a microbe that can produce an advanced biofuel directly from biomass. Deploying the tools of synthetic biology, the JBEI researchers engineered a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to produce biodiesel fuel and other important chemicals derived from fatty acids.

What that means is taking pretty much any kind of plant material, feeding it to specially engineered bacteria, who then produce fuels.

Fuels and chemicals have been produced from the fatty acids in plant and animal oils for more than a century. These oils now serve as the raw materials not only for biodiesel fuel, but also for a wide range of important chemical products including surfactants, solvents and lubricants.

The researchers engineered a new strain of E. coli to produce hemicellulases - enzymes that are able to ferment hemicellulose, the complex sugars that are a major constituent of cellulosic biomass and a prime repository for the energy locked within plant cell walls. The work identifies a potentially cost-effective way of converting grass or crop waste directly into fuel, filling gas tanks without raising global food prices or increasing hunger and deforestation in far-flung locales. Moreover, the process is much more climate friendly than manufacturing ethanol from maize, and produces higher-energy fuels that are interchangeable with current petroleum products. The next step is to scale the process up and adapt it to cellulose, which makes up the bulk of plant material.

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