UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science announced the release of E. coli that is engineered to produce butanol.  The license was granted to Gevo, Inc., of Pasadena California.

The license is for a new method that produces genetically modified Escherichia coli bacteria for efficient butanol synthesis.  The group, lead by James Liao includes Shota Atsumi and Taizo Hanai has their results published in the January 3 issue of Nature.

Butanol solves some of ethanol’s problems.  Butanol offers higher density per volume, doesn’t mix with water and isn’t corrosive to many metals.  Butanol is less volatile, and in some forms such as isobutanol offers higher octane allowing higher engine compressions.  The breakthrough is, these are the first biologically active organisms that produce higher alcohols with yields that make them viable substitutes for petroleum-based gasoline.

In normal fermentation butanol products can form.  Prior efforts have produced active organisms that produce butanol only to have the butanol concentration poison the organisms.  Liao says “We bypassed this difficulty by leveraging the native metabolic networks in E. Coli but altered its intracellular chemistry using genetic engineering to produce the [butanol] alcohols.”  The pathway modifications produced several higher-chain alcohols including isobutanol, 1-butanol, 2-methyl-1-butanol, 3-methyl-1-butanol and 2-phenylethanol.  The leveraging effort results in achieving high yields of high specificity isobutanol from glucose.

Liao goes on to say, “These results mean the these unusual alcohols in fact can be manufactured as efficiently as what has evolved in nature for ethanol.  Therefore, we now can explore these unusual alcohols as biofuels and are not bound by what nature has given us.”

That’s the good news.  The feedstock is glucose, a sugar form that isnt’ so readily available from biomatter.  Corn yields starch, sugar cane sucrose, and cellulosic bases such as wood need considerable processing for use as a feedstock for brewers yeast, the organism that drives the ethanol business today.  This raises the question of what feedstocks these new E. coli organisms can use.  The next matter might be can the new E. coli be integrated into the current ethanol production industry?  Finally, will the butanol that is used by consumers keep the engines within the pollution emission rules?

Perhaps the work is half done, needing only the development of hardiness that allows a broad range of feedstocks.  The test for existing plant adoption may hinge on the capital cost to convert, offset by the increased value that a gallon of butanol offers compared to ethanol.  Lastly I don’t expect that the emission issue will pose a barrier so much as an opportunity for clean air bureaucrats to intercede and delay adoption.

Overall, this is pretty big news, directly affecting U.S. corn farmers, Brazilian sugarcane growers and the whole ethanol production community.  The increase in energy density alone can add more than 20% to the total biomass sourced energy joules.  Stay tuned for more, as the big news will be about the means by which the butanol products are separated out of the growth solution, if no heat is used for distillation, butanol will be on a steep adoption curve into the world’s liquid fuels.

 The full UCLA press release, here.  The Gevo, Inc., site is here.


2 Comments so far

  1. Connecting News, Commentaries and Blogs at NineReports.com on February 4, 2008 5:02 PM

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  2. Prostate Cancer Symptoms on November 8, 2010 10:28 AM

    nice post. thanks.

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