A breakthrough in the development of a biofuel could eventually eliminate the need for foreign oil, according to University of Minnesota researchers.
The team recently discovered how to use a protein to get hydrocarbons — the main component in fossil fuel — from bacteria.
Led by biochemistry professor Larry Wackett, researchers used a protein to transform fatty acids from bacteria into ketones, which can be converted into hydrocarbons and then into diesel fuel.
“The key step was figuring out which gene was capable of producing fatty acids and then taking that from one organism and putting it into another and actually seeing it work,” said Jasmine Erickson, a University nutrition student who worked alongside a then-doctoral candidate who made the discovery.
The University is also filing a patent on aspects of the protein, OleA, Wackett said. He said the team’s knowledge of it can be used to modify the organism to produce more hydrocarbons in larger quantities.
“It’s one thing to understand the enzyme and know how this works,” Wackett said, “but now to actually do it on a large scale requires some engineering.”
This was only one component of the project, which received a $2.2 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in the U.S. Department of Energy in October 2009, Wackett said.
Another goal of the project, which is in collaboration with BioCee Inc., a biotechnology company, and Pacific Northwestern National Laboratory, is to make the hydrocarbons in latex films, or catalytic surfaces — “a much more efficient way” of doing it, Wackett said.
“It’s different than most research,” said Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineering and materials science professor and one of the project’s co-investigators. “It’s high-risk, high-reward.”
Schmidt said there are three parts to the project: biology, biotechnology and chemical engineering.
“We’ve got to get the whole chain working,” Schmidt said.
His team changes the hydrocarbons into gasoline or diesel fuel.
He said ARPA-E is interested in making a “self-contained system,” in which gasoline or diesel fuel must be made from sunlight and cheap fuel sources, like sugar or starch — “some place where you can’t just go to your local Exxon Mobil station and get gasoline.”
The research team uses a bacterium that “fixes” carbon dioxide and sunlight and converts it to sugars, which are then fed to a bacterium that produces hydrocarbons, Erickson said. She said the plan is beneficial because it takes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.
She said the research team is now trying to work out “all these little kinks.”
“It’s not instant gratification by any means,” said Erickson, who began working on the project in Wackett’s lab in June 2010. But she said they are capable of doing it.
“We’ll have a very, very novel pathway that is capable of taking things that are just regularly occurring and turning them into something that’s useful for us,” Erickson said, “which is the diesel fuel.”
In order to reach a similar outcome as the University, a research team at Iowa State University, led by biology professor Martin Spalding and also funded by an ARPA-E grant, has made progress using a different approach.
“I’m very optimistic that either Wackett’s group or our group or any number of other people that are working in this same area across the country are going to be producing biofuel at least at a scale that shows it will work,” Spalding said, “certainly in less than a decade.”
He said oil-price increases, national security issues and potential job generation in the industry have encouraged funding and interest in the success of biofuel development before it’s geologically necessary.
“Plus,” Spalding said, “the environmental concerns about carbon dioxide and global warming are all pushing in the same direction.”
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
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