Common familiarity with alcohols begins with methanol or wood alcohol you’ll find in the windshield washing fluid, ethanol in beverages and now as a fuel additive and extender, propanol in rubbing alcohol and the less common butanol. Those are respectively 1 through 4 carbon (Cx) atom alcohols, liquid and flammable energy carriers that can be fuels both for ignition reaction or disassembly for fuel cells. They are also easy to make – the easiest starting with the 1 carbon atom methanol.

Alcohols, in a general sense, form up molecules starting with methanol, the shortest “chain” if you will, on up to butanol where the molecules can take other shapes and properties. For fuel purposes primarily being portable and combustible liquids, these alcohols are available from cheap as with methanol to problematic as with butanol. Butanol can form up molecules shapes that are not ideal fuel chains. The point is that good fuel properties hinge on the chain arrangement of the atoms in the molecules.

Larger count carbon alcohols exist in nature up to beyond 30 carbon atoms. They’re found on the leaves of plants, the waxy surface of fruits and a huge array of other biological sources. At these carbon densities chain shaped molecules are absent. Starting at 5 carbon atoms liquid properties start to diminish.

The world’s fuels based in petroleum, mirrors alcohols with 1 carbon methane which is natural gas, ethane which is also present in natural gas and is used for chemical production, propane a common fuel pressurized for transport and vaporized to combust, and butane another lightly pressurized fuel that combusts as seen in pocket lighters. These “short chain” hydrocarbons all need pressure containment. At 5 carbon atoms we’re in the gasoline zone of hydrocarbons that runs up to about 10 carbons where low vapor pressures are needed. The next hydrocarbon chain molecule sets are jet fuels, mixtures that contain from 5 carbon atoms to as much as 16 carbon atoms in solution and diesel, which are mixes starting with 10 carbon atoms on up to 15 carbon atoms. Thus the situation sets out the term “long chain” for molecules with 5 or more carbon atoms.

Until last month there were no “long chain” alcohol synthesis processes. Liquid alcohols stopped at C4 and those natural alcohols with more carbon atoms are grease like in viscosity on to waxy and finally solid hard wax. As seen in the hydrocarbons, there could be a huge market for synthesized alcohols up to perhaps as dense as C16. But they have to be liquid, or long chain molecules to answer the market needs.

Today there are petroleum sources and bio oil sources to fill the C5 and up market. Adding long chain alcohols would increase the supply again from another source. That makes the news release out of UCLA a week before Christmas much more important than noticed. The team at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have successfully pushed nature beyond its limits by genetically modifying Escherichia coli, a bacterium to produce unusually long-chain alcohols essential in the creation of biofuels.

E.Coli Graphic Click for Description

E.Coli Graphic Click for Description

The new protein and metabolic engineering method developed by Liao and his research team is detailed in the Dec. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is currently available online. James Liao, UCLA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering said, “Previously, we were able to synthesize long-chain alcohols containing five carbon atoms. “We stopped at five carbons at the time because that was what could be naturally achieved. Alcohols were never synthesized beyond five carbons. Now, we’ve figured out a way to engineer proteins for a whole new pathway in E. coli to produce longer-chain alcohols with up to eight carbon atoms.”

There’s the breakthrough.

“This research is significant for two reasons,” said Liao, the study’s lead author. “From a scientific standpoint, we wanted to show that we can expand nature’s capability in making alcohol molecules. We showed we are not limited by what nature creates. From an energy standpoint, we wanted to create larger, longer-chain molecules because they contain more energy. This is significant in the production of gasoline and even jet fuel.”

Recalling the interest in bio butanol that offers very near to gasoline energy density with advantages in octane and other properties suggest that the research yielding C8 alcohols may well have the properties to be complementary to jet and diesel. New by less than a month, these fuels are in need of some produced volumes for examination and testing. Then we’ll really know what the potential may be.

It’s a breakthrough – petroleum sources, bio oil sources and now synthesized alcohol sources are three future alternatives for all the major fuels in use today. There is still a long road ahead. One big challenge to overcome might be the long-chain alcohols’ toxicity to the producing bacteria. Liao does not think that toxicity will be a showstopper. He says that the bacteria could be engineered to make them more alcohol tolerant. But, he says, increasing the yield will be in the hands of the company that licenses the new technology.


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