UCLA researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have genetically modified a cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide in a set of steps to produce the liquid fuel isobutanol.  Isobutanol is a form of the alcohol butanol, a favorite for many in a transition away from fossil fuels as butanol based products should very easily adapt with little or no changes to the engines that burn gasoline thus having a shorter transition time frame for the greatest potential as a gasoline alternative.  Butanol is a liquid energy dense alcohol in a four-carbon molecule.

UCLAs Synechococcus Elongatus in Petri Dish. Click image for more info.

UCLAs Synechococcus Elongatus in Petri Dish. Click image for more info.

The research paper is in the Dec. 9 print edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology and is available online, both as the abstract and the full text, for an indeterminate time at least.

Now the research is based on bacteria, thus the genetic modification is about the insertion of genes into the organism.  In short, the research team at UCLA has managed to find and modify the bacteria they use to produce primarily the chemical isobutyraldehyde and some isobutanol.  Isobutyraldehyde is a precursor for the synthesis of other chemicals, and isobutanol can be used as a gasoline substitute. Other bacteria and chemical processes can convert the isobutyraldehyde into isobutanol.

One engineered strain remained active for 8 days and produced isobutyraldehyde at a higher rate than those reported for ethanol, hydrogen or lipid production by cyanobacteria or by algae. The results underscore the promise of direct bioconversion of CO2 into fuels and chemicals, which bypasses the need for destroying the organisms to extract the products.  That in itself in very good news indeed, as the algae effort is essentially plugged by the work needed to get the oil out for processing.

UCLA Isobutyraldehyde Production Results. Click image for more info.

UCLA Isobutyraldehyde Production Results. Click image for more info.

The UCLA researchers chose isobutyraldehyde as a target because it has a low boiling point, only  63 °C and its high vapor pressure is 66 mm Hg at 4.4 °C.  That suggests it can be readily stripped from microbial cultures during production. Subsequent purification is also relatively easy, and the isobutyraldehyde concentration in the production medium can remain low, below self-toxification levels.

Using more than one modified strain the UCLA team has come up with more than one production path.  As you peruse the paper it becomes clear the genetic modifications are at the very earliest stages and much more experimentation is forthcoming. For example, one discussed strain produced nearly at the rate reliable algae claims can make.  The strain lives productively for 8 days or so, and refreshed with new growth medium, resumes production without new organisms. Its quite different than algae that must be essentially killed and pressed some way to extract the oil or the yeast of ethanol production that are life cycled in each batch.

The significance of the UCLA work is that their technical skills have shown the production of isobutyraldehyde as a precursor to butanol fuel is technically feasible, using nothing more than sunlight and airborne CO2 as the raw materials.  Of note, the paper also mentions that the methods have used CO2 in concentrated form, but only up to a 5% level.  That low level lowers the threshold needed to consider the CO2 cost in the process.

While its quite early in the UCLA team’s progress, they have a very significant breakthrough.  The research could well lead to an industrial scale method to produce light motor fuel, and do so quickly.  The capital costs if or when scale is obtainable look at this point in time to be much less than algae or ethanol.  Yet, full of unknowns, the basics here are very encouraging.

The value for the work is immediate.  As an essentially a drop in replacement for gasoline, butanol production at large economical scale would cap oil prices and may well drive down the cost per passenger mile over time.

This writer is certain the algae effort will come to fruition in its time solving the problem of supplying the middle distillate range of oils like diesel, jet, kerosene and home heating oil.  A butanol solution at economical scale would fill the personal and light vehicle segment of the transport fleet including virtually all of the existing vehicles.

But butanol would have the most impact in the balance of trade problem that importing oil products load on consuming nations for their gasoline needs.

Just to keep the peace, both bacteria based butanol production and algae sourced middle distillate replacements would operate within the planet’s contemporaneous carbon cycle putting humanity in step with the rest of the life on earth.  It could lead to a reduction of the CO2 available in the atmosphere, which might seem to some – a good thing.


10 Comments so far

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  10. Recycled newspaper may soon produce the fuel that runs your car on June 16, 2012 10:06 AM

    […] is a member of the Clostridium genus of bacteria. The Tulane discovery is not isolated. UCLA researchers in 2009 also tested bacterium for a similar purpose. They fed a genetically modified cyanobacteria […]

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