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Genetically modified microorganism could convert atmospheric CO2 into fuel

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March 29, 2013

Michael Adams, of UGA's Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, helped develop a microorgani...

Michael Adams, of UGA's Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, helped develop a microorganism that could produce fuel from atmospheric CO2

While much research is being done on capturing carbon dioxide emissions at their source to reduce the amount expelled into the atmosphere, researchers at the University of Georgia’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute have taken a different approach to tackle the problem. Taking a leaf out of the process used by plants to convert CO2 into something useful, they have uncovered a way to take CO2 from the atmosphere and transform it into useful industrial products, including, potentially, fuel.

The method took inspiration from photosynthesis, whereby plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars they use for energy. The researchers created a microorganism that imitates what plants do by manipulating the genetic material of Pyrococcus furiosus or "rushing fireball," a microorganism that feeds on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents.

The team modified the organism so that is able to feed at lower temperatures. They then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the microorganism that incorporates CO2 into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical that can be used to make acrylics and other products.

"What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman," said Michael Adams, lead researcher. "We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass."

In addition to the production of industrial products, other genetic manipulations could allow the organism to produce other products, including fuels. However, at this point the conversion cycle still relies on fossil fuels because the researchers use hydrogen as the source of energy, whose most readily available source at the moment is natural gas, also a fossil fuel.

"In the longer term we would hope to use hydrogen from a renewable (non-fossil fuel) biological source, such as from photosynthetic algae or from waste-product fermentations," said Adams. However, the fuel produced with Pyrococcus furiosus is carbon-neutral because it releases the same amount of CO2 when burned as was used to create it, making it cleaner than gasoline, oil and coal.

This is not the first time scientists have looked to bacteria to produce fuel from carbon. A couple of years ago researchers from the University of Minnesota created a process using Synechococcus, a photosynthetic bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight before converting it to sugars.

Adams says the research team will now look at refining the process and testing it on a larger scale.

Details of the study, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, were published on March 25 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Source: University of Georgia

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
6 Comments

Or you could just use a fast growing, heat tolerant algae to generate biomass and use the Fischer–Tropsch process to produce motor fuels and use the resulting high purity carbon as filter material, fuel in solid fuel furnaces, or any other process that needs carbon.

Slowburn
30th March, 2013 @ 03:28 am PDT

Oh, sure. Just what we need: an organism that could fundamentally alter the gas composition of the atmosphere.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Anne Ominous
30th March, 2013 @ 11:53 am PDT

I would be not very optimistic in the long run about this method really when it starts competing with the plants on the planet over available CO2.

It sounds interesting of course.

Kris Lee
30th March, 2013 @ 01:28 pm PDT

I hope some idiot does not flush a beakerfull down the sink so it escapes into the world! We might end up with the world's water turned into slime and no CO2 in the air for the plants to survive ... As Slowburn says above, who bother?

The Skud
1st April, 2013 @ 06:07 pm PDT

Great post and comments.

Where is the whole process deriving its energy from? the 1st law tells us this is an important issue when it comes to moving compounds of 0 enthalpy to high energy density products.

thanks

jlrdb
2nd April, 2013 @ 12:59 am PDT

GMM* co2 to fuel?(interesting)

Richard McTaggart
11th April, 2013 @ 10:32 am PDT
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