A team from the University of Exeter, with support from Shell, has developed a method to make bacteria produce diesel on demand. Sounding a bit like science fiction the technology still faces many significant commercialization challenges.
But the diesel, produced by the special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel, so it doesn’t need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils.
Synthetic Alkanes in a Petri Dish. Diesel produced by special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and so does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils. Image Credit: Marian Littlejohn.
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That also means that the diesel would be a ‘Drop-In’ and can be used with current supplies in existing infrastructure because engines, pipelines and tankers do not need to be modified.
Professor John Love from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said: “Producing a commercial biofuel that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset. Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral biofuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect.”
The E. coli bacteria group naturally turns sugars into fat to build their cell membranes. Using that genetic quality should lead to oils useful as synthetic fuels being created by harnessing this natural oil production process. Large scale manufacturing using E. coli as the catalyst is already commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry and, although the biodiesel is currently produced in tiny quantities in the laboratory, work will continue to see if this may be a viable commercial pathway to ‘drop in’ fuels.
The research paper was published in the U.S. yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Rob Lee from Shell Projects & Technology said: “We are proud of the work being done by Exeter in using advanced biotechnologies to create the specific hydrocarbon molecules that we know will continue to be in high demand in the future. While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialization, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel, along with other intelligent technologies, we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.”
Biofuels are the most immediate, practical solution for mitigating dependence on fossil hydrocarbons, but the commercial current biofuels such as alcohols and biodiesels require significant downstream processing and are not always fully compatible with modern, mass-market internal combustion engines.
The ideal biofuels are structurally and chemically identical to the fossil fuels they seek to replace. That is not such a simple thing as most petroleum products are toxic to plants in worthwhile concentrations.
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The Exeter team’s results demonstrate an ability to design and implement artificial molecular pathways for the production of renewable, industrially relevant fuel molecules.
Shell Oil has noticed and backed the research. With lab results in hand the intellectual exploration and discovery is finished leaving the hard work to go. Can the research scale to commercial volumes with out a massive infrastructure at a competitive price point?
Time will tell, but diesel is very close to heating oil, and jet fuel. Added together they are a huge international market.
By. Brian Westenhaus