The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded James C. Liao, Chancellor’s Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, $4 million over three years to develop a method for converting carbon dioxide into the liquid fuel isobutanol using electricity.

Liao’s grant was part of $106 million awarded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from ARPA-E, a new agency that promotes and funds projects to develop transformational technologies to reduce the U.S.’s dependence on foreign energy, curb energy-related emissions and improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy.

Liao has received widespread attention for his work producing more efficient biofuels by genetically modifying E. coli bacteria, and recently, for modifying cyanobacterium to consume CO² to produce isobutanol – in a reaction powered by energy from sunlight though photosynthesis.

Now, Liao and his team would like to use electricity as the process energy source instead. The process would store electricity in liquid fuels that can be used as high-octane gasoline substitutes.

Liao understands CO² recycling issues, explaining direct synthesis of biofuels using photosynthetic microorganisms such as algae and cyanobacteria is promising but requires a large land surface area for capturing sunlight.  Solar photovoltaic cells are more efficient for energy conversion, but the electricity produced faces both a storage problem and the intermittent production matter.

Liao said, “Our proposed process will provide one of the most feasible and economical methods to convert electricity to liquid fuel in a scalable manner. The immediate impact is that it solves the electricity storage problem by converting the electrical energy to liquid fuels that are fully compatible with the current infrastructure for distribution, storage and utilization.”  Going to a liquid does provide a dense fuel and butanol would go to the largest liquid fuel market – gasoline.

Electricity driven butanol process might seem a stretch, but Liao isn’t one to be underestimated.  The professor has been at this for some years now and the early results have seeded a wide field of research. Any positive result from Liao is sure to provoke others to press on with other innovations.

Liao’s team engineered cyanobacteria produce isobutyaldehyde and isobutanol directly from carbon dioxide and sunlight as announced less than six months ago. The engineered strain of Synechococcus elongatus remained active for 8 days and produced isobutyraldehyde at a higher rate than those reported for ethanol, hydrogen or lipid production by cyanobacteria or algae. These results underscore the promise of direct bioconversion of CO² into fuels and chemicals, which bypasses the need for deconstruction of the biomass.  This is impressive research.

Cyanobacteria Producing Isobutanol. This is the full size image.

Liao’s grant seems to be out of the team’s usual field – electrical powered processes would be outside the genetic engineering field.  The experience in Liao’s team in building butanol is unassailable, somewhere in that butanol construction of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen there must be some clues on building the molecules synthetically using electricity.

The questions about sourcing the hydrogen and oxygen atoms may well be electricity’s big enticement.  Controlling the energy of the electricity put into a process might be very advantageous.  Just how Liao gets to butanol production will be fascinating.

This writer usually doesn’t consider a grant announcement as newsworthy, but butanol molecules built with electrical power – just the attempt is interesting and with Liao involved it’s sure to be going somewhere positive.  Getting a process that would scale economically that directly answers the world’s largest liquid fuel demand would be extraordinary in its implications.

Go Liao, go!


12 Comments so far

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  4. Matt Musson on May 29, 2010 7:13 AM

    If we could transform electricity into a transportation fuel efficiently – it would be a game changer.

  5. jp straley on May 31, 2010 5:22 AM

    Well, electrons from electricity are indeed occasionally used as reagents, and it is cheap chemistry when it can be realized. Is this the case here? None of the announcements discuss mechanism.

    JP Straley

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