Scientists use bacteria to create fuel from sunlight and CO2


March 24, 2011

Shewanella bacteria, which produces ketones that are processed into fuel(Image from 'Cultivating Bacteria's Taste for Toxic Waste')

Shewanella bacteria, which produces ketones that are processed into fuel
(Image from 'Cultivating Bacteria's Taste for Toxic Waste')

Researchers from the University of Minnesota have announced a breakthrough in the quest to create a viable fuel alternative using greenhouse gases. The process uses two types of bacteria to create hydrocarbons from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Those hydrocarbons can in turn be made into fuel, which the scientists are calling "renewable petroleum."

The process starts with Synechococcus, a photosynthetic bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight, then converts that CO2 to sugars. Those sugars are then passed on to another bacterium, Shewanella, which consumes them and produces fatty acids. University of Minnesota biochemistry graduate student Janice Frias discovered how to use a protein to transform those acids into ketones, a type of organic compound. Her colleagues in the university's College of Science and Engineering have developed catalytic technology that allows them to convert those ketones into diesel fuel.

"CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment," said Frias' advisor, Prof. Larry Wackett. "It's also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels."

The university is in the process of filing patents on the process.

The research is being published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Very promising article. I guess burning the fuel will produce CO2 again? But at least the net environmental effect is zero.

The good thing about comparatively low-tech processes like this is, they may allow production to be decentralised.. saving a lot of energy on shipping.

I wonder how scaleable this process is for commercial production?


Aren\'t you just putting back (burning diesel) what you took out? Plus generating a bit more in the process?


If they care so much about the environment? Why patent it?

Paul van Dinther

This sounds great!

So how far is the technology from commercial viability?

Gizmag, we love the stuff you come up with but quite often it\'s short on such details and more follow ups also might help.


Preliminary conversion rates would be nice...

Knowledge Thirsty

This statement from a so-called professor seems to illustrate a lack of understanding of the carbon cycle;

\"CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment,\" said Frias\' advisor, Prof. Larry Wackett. \"It\'s also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.\"

I wonder if he has a design for a perpetual motion machine too.


Patent? is then able to govern/manage the use of the technology and who profits from it or not. And profit\'s not a 4 letter word...even Higher Education and research need funding. Image what else they might be able to develop if they can afford to do so. :-)

Mark G

If you care so much about the environment Dinther, why don\'t you make a competing technology for nothing? Sheesh, they\'ve got to pay the bills, the staff, and they\'ve got to fund the next step up, and frankly, when you make something that works that helps everyone, you deserve a reward. Why don\'t you move to Cuba, that great bastion of scientific progress? Oh that\'s right, Castro recently said that communism doesn\'t work.

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I wonder if the process requires fossile fuel. I get a feeling that all those conversion steps need a bit more than time and maybe some sunshine. But if I\'m wrong it sounds wonderful. :-)

Conny Söre

@ Paul: Hopefully just to recoup the R&D expenses.


Paul D - That\'s exactly what I was thinking, why throw a great, possibly planet saving idea down the capitalism drain? Don\'t patent it! Allow the world to use the process freely if you care about the environment at all!


Probably another Eco Red Herring, like the bacteria that turns sand to stone, solar arrays that can combine CO and water into fuel, etc, etc..

Either the people that govern governments are blocking this tech or all these ideas are hitting problems just like Fusion reactors.

Fusion ractors work ,BUT you have to put in more energy than you get out.. little problem to some but a BIGGY in regards to fusion being developed outside of the reseach facilities that make claims of solving the worlds energy demand.

Basically this is the same process as a Tree or corn growing and them making it into eco fuel. The key is how costly and effiecent this process could be. I personally preferred the Solar Dish story making fuel out of water and thin air..

If this tech ever does make it out of the lab, it would be great product for north africa where there is loads of sun.. They could pump sea water inland and create evaporation green houses producing eco fuel and salt, gold, other metals etc. Perhaps that was a dream... :-?

Facebook User

I love alternative energy, however I wonder that if we somehow develop really cheap energy will we not use that energy to say bulldoze more forests, mine more ores etc? Can the Earth really handle plentiful cheap energy?


that\'s the real problem exactly! any substantial progress might be seen as an open license to go right back to burning the planet and feeding our insatiable greed. and besides, if it does work on a significant scale, it will be suppressed by the oil companies like so many other technologies have been. in the end, no real progress will be made until people understand the real problem, the real enemy. the oil companies have to be put under the gun like the cigarette companies were.


I think the bacteria needs a little more unicorn love and warm feelings. Then it could power everything in the world. Glad so much effort is being put into eradicating that terrible C02, because I heard Oprah say that the oceans will rise at least ten feet in the next six months.

I am making my own contributions to stop Climate Change by not flushing my toilet this year, bathing, shaving or clipping my toenails. My birkenstocks let everything air out and I don\'t care what other people riding the bus think.

I am saving the world, so screw all of you greedy republicans.

Todd Dunning

This sounds very good but to be viable the process relies on a form of photosynthesis which means this is a solar technology. That is great but the limitation is the diffuse nature of sunlight. At most, the earth gets only a peak of about 300 btu/sq. ft. per hour (less than 1/10th of a kw) and when considering the efficiency of energy conversion (a lot less than 100%), a very small amount of energy can be obtained per square foot of sunlit area. To replace any significant amount of the energy obtained from fossil fuels, we would need to use a tremendously large amount of land area, which might be otherwise used to produce food or living space.

I am an advocate of alternative energy and especially solar energy, having studied it while completing graduate work on alternative energy systems and energy conservation. However, the laws of thermodynamics are unyielding; there is no free lunch. Back in the 70\'s while in grad school, I read a proposal that claimed that a by the use of solar concentrators and 70,000 sq. miles of desert area, all of the power needs of the US could be satisfied. Maybe so, but that project should have begun 30 years ago when there was still enough money to do so; not today, when the US and government is untold trillions in the hole. Maybe if that project had been started, I would have been able to continue working in the energy field as I had intended.

In my opinion, the best things we can do to reduce energy dependence on oil is to:

(1) Limit world population (2) Get back to energy conservation (3) Start using technology already developed to use coal cleanly (4) Utilize safer nuclear power (Thorium reactors, fast breeders to greatly reduce nuclear waste) (5) Rebuild and encourage the use of mass transportation (6) Develop large scale solar energy wherever it is practical (forget about expense, it will never compare with fossil fuels until they are almost gone).


\"That\'s exactly what I was thinking, why throw a great, possibly planet saving idea down the capitalism drain? Don\'t patent it! Allow the world to use the process freely if you care about the environment at all!\"

Sigh. Ok, don\'t patent it. Then Exxon-Mobil will use the process for nothing, sell you the fuel, and make billions in profit. Meanwhile the inventors who spent time and money don\'t get a thing out of it. Just because something isn\'t patented doesn\'t mean other people can\'t make money off of it.

People and corporations across the world are paying right now for fossil fuels; they\'ll pay for renewable fuels too. We\'ve got a CO2 excess, not a fuel shortage (yet) going on.


CO2 balance is actually negative, because biomass is being produced, too (which is also carbon-fixing).

However, it is the productivity-to-biomass-growth ratio which determines profitability and applicability.

A good idea, for the wisdom lies in can also look at:

As for the capitalism vs. idealism....the great majority of scientists today behave like cows, anyway; vying only between themselves, getting \"a nicer stable and more hay\" if they produce enough \"milk\" (and on time!) - but, never truly being accepted as partners by \"the farmers\" (managers, venture capitalists, shysters-of-all kinds...). Just milk-milk-milk....until they dry up.

And when they try to turn the tables...well, You all read \"Animal Farm\"....:-)

....However, do not worry...intelligent life will emerge again...even if not necessarily of primate origin...

Facebook User

\"bacteria needs a little more unicorn love and warm feelings\"

it\'s nice to know that there are still enough braindead republicans out there doing their best to ruin the planet for the rest of us.


mikewax - I agree with you - there\'s a massive conspiracy by the oil companies to \"suppress\" new technologies. You\'re right: they\'re \"the real problem, the real enemy\".

I\'ll bet they invented CO2, probably so Cheney could make money. I have even heard it whispered that many oil companies are corporations too. Many of their employees make a lot of money, and that means they are stealing from the rest of us Liberals who play X-box and go to protests all day.

It\'s because we are so much smarter than those braindead republicans that we won\'t allow drilling on our own land. Instead, we buy it in the trillions from the Saudis, to put into oil tankers that spill. And also offshore which maybe doesn\'t have a perfect safety record but hey ... look, a squirrel!

Todd Dunning

Gee, I don\'t claim to be the brightest bulb in the string, but last time I checked, the chemical formulae for hydrocarbons required at least one hydrogen atom. Where does that come from if all you\'re working with is sunlight (with no atoms at all) and carbon dioxide (CO2)? I\'d like to see a more complete explanation before I invest, thanks,

Great team work from the researching people WELL DONE!!! No such thing as a \'Free Lunch\' - Nothing is free, now trees suck in the carbon dioxide during the day I hope this process is not affecting the balance of that work????? To live within our means recognises we dont just use the energy because it is there. I know we need toilet paper which needs forests - balance, replant and sustainability We have turned into a global market economy so just for example we do not catch a plane to go to Myponga for a carton of milk as we would a corner shop... If this type of fuel is for a \'StarTrek Transporter\' device I am with you... Remote people can use this technology

warakila OK what they should have said is CO2 Sunlight and water(H20) that supplies the hydrogen. This is what plants do.


hello. with a magical inexpensive protein additive, (alike a cow eats it, and it becomes patties), you have a batch the size of a pin head. the oil barons fund anything to cling to burning gasoline. this will eat .000008 % of CO2 in the atmosphere (bravo); unless you have oceans of bacteria the size of Mars on Mercury, it will make no difference whatsoever. if every step in the right direction is progress, they must be using a supercomputer to calculate this fraction of a step.


yes, that\'s photosynthesis. CO2 from the air, water form the ground, and light. O2 is the byproduct.


The part about fixing CO2 with photosynthetic organisms is fine. The problem is that there are lots of other parts of this process that use energy. So the question is, what\'s the net energy? How much is made, and how much is used to make it? This will determine if the process is economically feasible.

to - No problem, here the explanation: ALL carbon-based life on Earth (as we know and define it) requires water (H20). That`s where the hydrogen comes from (to form hydrocarbons through photosynthesis).

Please, do invest now. :-)

Facebook User

Sounds like it has a little potential, but I notice they left out the part about the catalyst. Is it platinum? Is it some other precious metal? Because if so, and this is one of the huge obstacles we\'re facing in energy independence, then this is still just a small step forward. We need to be able to do this with cheap enough materials that it can be built up all over the place.


I love this newsletter, but could you please get a little more detail? Obviously a cell needs to get trace minaerals and Nitrogen in their diet. Does the bacteria poop it out or do you have to harvest the bacteria? How far along are they?


This is for all you liberals who says CO 2 is a problem in our atmosphere .

Joe Kolaski III

The net effect of CO2 does not have to be zero. Complex hydrocarbons can be used for other things besides fuel, particularly plastics. Sure they eventually breakdown but the delay means that it is not in the air for a time. It is as though the CO2 is sequestered in total volume of plastics not broken down at the given moment.


mjwallin - I agree with you 187%, but you should also include one more very important point: limit/reverse suburban sprawl. I currently live in Shanghai (the amount of energy this country uses and the pollution it creates is a whole seperate conversation). But my permanent home is in Atlanta, GA, where the average commute is almost 2 hours. I know we\'re not the worst in the US, but we\'re close.

By reducing drive times, we\'re cutting back on one of the highest carbon-producers we have. Then you have the by-products of reduced infrastructure, maintenance on that infrastructure, clearing land for building, etc, etc, etc.

But I digress.... To the point of this story, there are a few commenters that hit the proverbial nail on the head - all this technology seems to be doing is recycling the carbon that is already there. That would be OK if we starting doing this before things got so bad, but I really don\'t feel it will do us much good now. Reducing dependency on fossil fuels while developing an alternative fuel that uses existing infrastructure and distribution methods is the only way I can see it working without a complete do-over.

Just , my 2 cents....


warte poczytania!!!

Facebook User

David @ 6:10pm. It depends on where you\'re getting the CO2 from. What if you collected it from the flue stack of a gas or coal power station-or from some other industrial process that generates CO2? Then you\'re effectively getting twice as much bang for your CO2 buck than if you just let it enter the atmosphere. There is a similar move towards bio-sequestration using algal biomass.


I think some people here misunderstand how micro-organisms synthesize materials from basic components. Enzymes don\'t require extra special metal catalysts-they\'re organic catalysts themselves. Also, the energy for this entire process seems to be supplied from the metabolic processes of the micro-organisms themselves, so shouldn\'t need additional input. Why does everyone want to be so negative?


Now here\'s a breakthru.

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This is probably the most dangerous road for life on Earth to go on that I could ever conceive of. If a genetically engineered bacteria (which has no natural restrictions) escapes and reduces most of our atmospheric CO2 to biofuel, we can forget pretty much all other life on Snowball Earth.


You could use this bacteria or any other algae to make cheap sugar. Had a similar idea myself, but still no lab.


This is exciting stuff, but what I find really exciting is the research that is going on that is using microorganisms (bacteria and algae) to produce hydrogen. This technology could have virtually zero carbon footprint. Air + sunlight to produce hydrogen which is converted to electricity in a fuel cell that does work and produces water vapor as the only byproduct. Running our industrialized world using these technologies may be a long way in the future, but the concept is mind boggling. The biggest problem with all this is storage of electricity. Hydrogen is the storage material. It makes the need for heavy pollution ridden batteries a thing of the past.

Willie Wonka

I am not much of a scientist but don't trees absorb carbon dioxide more efficiently than bacteria? And can't we then burn dead trees to power mass transportation devices?

Jeremy Byington
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