Science

New Renewable Energy Source: Bacterium That Excretes Fuel Acohols

By Andrew Collins , Jun 10, 2016 04:40 AM EDT
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A research team developed efficient, renewable energy resource from bacteria, engineered to convert carbon and hydrogen into a variety of alcohols. The resource is expected to be developed as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Harvard chemist Daniel Nocera led the team who engineered the bacteria. The research is a follow-up on their recent success in developing the bionic leaf, a polymer that mimics plant photosynthesis. Nocera said alcohol extracted from the bacteria is a feasible energy source, in comparison to hydrogen produced by the bionic leaf.

Biomass In Demand, Not Hydrogen

In a Forbes report, he said that the world isn't ready for hydrogen energy, not yet. "If I give you my renewable hydrogen the only thing you'll do is blow up balloons with it."

Nocera also mentioned the existing infrastructure cannot accommodate hydrogen as a fuel source, which was proven by the auto industry's lack of support for the technology. The team then turned their attention to studies with immediate, practical applications: on engineered, fuel-excreting bacteria.

Bacteria Engineered To Expel Energy Source

Phys.org reports how the Ralston eutropha strain produces burning fuels. The strain is first developed to absorb carbon dioxide and hydrogen, essential elements in the production of adenosine triphosphate. This process is found in nature, but the team took this a step further by facilitating the conversion of ATP to alcohol, specifically isopentanol, isobutanol, and isopropanol. These by-products are then collected from the bacteria's excrement.

The team adopted techniques from colleague Anthony Sinskey, improving production efficiency of biomass up to 10.6 percent. In comparison, plants are 1% efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into biomass.

Regarding comments whether his research offers solutions to the problem of global warming and greenhouse gases, Nocera was doubtful. He said that the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed to facilitate production is negated when the by-product is burned as fuel. At the very least, the process offers a carbon-neutral resource.

The technology has immediate applications in areas without electricity, such as remote and isolated communities. Nocera said his team is scouting for investors who can apply the technology to communities in need in India. The research is preceded by studies with similar implications.

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