Bacteria could help solve the energy crisis

June 18, 2009 7:24:42 PM PDT
Researchers at UCSF may have discovered a ground breaking process to manufacture fuel, and the key was unearthed in a garbage dump in France.

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If this beaker were several thousand times larger, you just might be able to solve the energy crisis.

"You'd be making 100 to 2,000 barrels a day, so that's 40,000-80,000 gallons of gasoline," said Christopher Voigt, Ph.D. from UCSF.

Voigt and his team at UCSF'S QB3 lab are on the trail of what amounts to synthetic gasoline.

They've developed a process that uses organic materials like switch-grass. But if that sounds like just another version of ethanol or bio-diesel, it's not.

"In our case, we made the molecule that can be converted into gasoline," said Voigt

The secret is an obscure bacteria first discovered at a waste-dump in France. The bacteria, which can be recreated in the lab, devours different types of agricultural waste, leaving behind a specific molecule that interacts with yeast.

When the bacteria and the genetically altered yeast are combined in the same fermenter, the result is a kind of two stage processing plant. That final bi-product is methyl halide, a chemical already widely used in the petroleum industry that can be processed into gasoline.

"What we've done is taken bacteria and yeast, not normally living together, bacteria is good at chomping up carbon that's in trash, and it converts it into molecule that then the yeast can eat and turn it into product," said Voigt.

Turning the process into a large scale source of gasoline would require large fermenting plants, perhaps the size of small oil refineries.

But since the bacteria uses agricultural waste products, rather than crops such as corn, it offers the potential of creating organic energy without impacting the world's food supply.

The researchers have also formed a private company, hoping to lure commercial partners interested in developing the technology.

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