Researchers at the University of Georgia (UG) have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into useful industrial products.  It’s a development sure to excite the global warming crowd.  The dubious idea of excess carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere created by the widespread burning of fossil fuels is said to be the major driving force of global climate change.  Right or wrong, we’re hoping something worthwhile comes of all the hysteria and motivates some technology to provide fuels.

Researchers the all over the world are looking for new ways to generate power that leaves a smaller carbon footprint by recovering and recycling the carbon dioxide.  The UG discovery may soon lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the carbon dioxide in the air that is alleged to be responsible for trapping the sun’s rays and raising global temperatures.

Michael Adams in his Lab at University of Georgia. Click image for the largest view,

Michael Adams in his Lab at University of Georgia. Click image for the largest view.

Michael Adams, member of UG’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences explains, “Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do – absorb it and generate something useful.”

This isn’t sounding so new yet.  During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants use for energy. These sugars can be fermented into fuels like ethanol, but it has proven to be extraordinarily difficult to efficiently extract the stored sugars that are locked away inside the plant’s complex cell walls.

Adams continues, “What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman. We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”  This sounds more new.

The study detailing their results was published March 25th in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The UG process is made possible by a unique microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball,” which thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents. By manipulating the organism’s genetic material, Adams and his colleagues created a kind of P. furiosus that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.

The research team then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the microorganism that incorporates carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical used to make acrylics and many other products.

With other genetic manipulations of this new strain of P. furiosus, Adams and his colleagues could create a version that generates a host of other useful industrial products, including fuel, from carbon dioxide.

When the fuel created through the P. furiosus process is burned, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide used to create it, effectively making it carbon neutral, and therefore a neutral CO2 contributor compared to oil, natural gas and coal.

“This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels,” Adams said. “In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.”

While significant and a world’s first, engineering organisms to use carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, isn’t well understood and begs a rather stumbling question.  As the UG team’s work is so new, the practical applications aren’t easy to spell out or especially accurate predictors.  As more work is done much more will become clear.

The stumbling question is based in the hydrogen gas source.  Plants split out water and release the O2 for us and the hydrogen for building sugars and other compounds. Where the UG team is getting their hydrogen and how that might be sourced commercially isn’t explained.

Adams and his team earned some “Wow” factor for the idea and getting it this far.  It’s likely they’ve already had, are having and will have a lot more “Hmm” moments to come, after all its a whole new field.


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