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Darrell Delamaide

Darrell Delamaide

Darrell Delamaide is a writer, editor and journalist with more than 30 years' experience. He is the author of three books and has written for…

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How A Yeast Cell Could Transform The Biofuel Industry

Researchers at the University of Texas have engineered a yeast cell that transforms sugar into biofuel to improve its yield and make it more competitive with conventional fuels.

Building on its previous research developing the special strain of yeast, the team under Associate Professor Hal Alper combined metabolic engineering and directed evolution to identify and cultivate high-performing cells that produce 1.6 times as many fuel substitutes in a shorter time.

“This significant improvement in our cell-based platform enables these cells to compete in the biofuels industry,” Alper said in announcing the development. “We have moved to concentration values that begin to align with those in other industrial fuel processes.” Related: Media Spin On Oil Prices Running Out Of Fuel

The Texas announcement comes as the US National Research Council said in a new report that bio-based products already represent 2.2% of US GDP, or $353 billion, but are poised to expand even further.

“The advanced manufacturing of chemicals through biology can help address global challenges related to energy, climate change, sustainable and more productive agriculture, and environmental sustainability,” the report, entitled “Industrialization of Biology,” said in its introduction. “For example, these processes may help reduce toxic by-products, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lower fossil fuel consumption in chemical production.”

The report says that use of bio-engineering to make chemical products has lacked applications in health and agriculture because it is a more complex process. However, several recent successes indicate the industry may be on the threshold of a breakthrough. Related: Who’s To Blame For The Oil Price Crash?

“Based on these early successes, and powered by the rapidly developing science, use of industrial biology to produce a broad range of chemical products is likely to continue to accelerate,” the report said. “The future may also include a large number of high-volume chemicals, where biology represents a better synthetic pathway (cheaper and greener) than the conventional chemical synthesis.”

The researchers at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering underscored that point by noting that the new yeast strain could be used beyond biofuels in biochemical production of oleochemicals, which are used to make a variety of household products – ranging from nutritional polyunsaturated fatty acids to waxes, lubricants, oils, industrial solvents, cosmetics and nutraceuticals.

But the improved yeast cell, Yarrowia lipolytica, is most significant in its capacity to convert simple sugars into oils and fats, known as lipids, which can then be used in place of petroleum-derived products.

The Alper team last year published its successful results in combining the genetically engineered yeast cells of Yarrowia with ordinary table sugar to produce what Alper at the time called “a renewable version of sweet crude.” Related: Saudi Aramco’s Clever Strategy To Scoop Up America’s Best Energy Talent

The improved version can now do so more rapidly and with a concentration that could make the biofuel commercially competitive.

“Our re-engineered strain serves as a stepping stone toward sustainable and renewable production of fuels such as biodiesel,” Alper said in the UT statement. “Moreover, this work contributes to the overall goal of reaching energy independence.”

The UT discovery aligns with the US Department of Energy’s efforts to develop renewable and cost-competitive biofuels from nonfood biomass materials, the UT statement said.

“Advanced biofuels are part of America’s all-of-the-above strategy to develop domestic energy resources and win the global race in clean energy technology,” the DOE says in its description of the Bioenergy Technologies Office. The agency “works with the emerging US bio-industry to sustainably convert non-food biomass resources into cost-competitive biofuels, bio-power, and bio-products.”

By Darrell Delamaide for Oilprice.com

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