Researchers Developing Potentially 'Transformative' Method to Produce Clean, Green Biofuels (w/ Video)

May 25, 2010
Microbial electrosynthesis apparatus.

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new way to make valuable chemicals and more affordable “green” fuel from solar power, bacteria and carbon dioxide could be "truly transformative" for our society if it works on a commercial scale, says microbiologist Derek Lovley, head of a research group developing the method at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“This could be the most exciting and significant development in in years,” Lovley says. His microbial electrosynthesis (ME) process is carbon neutral and uses more efficiently than plants. In fact, it provides a solution to one of the major problems of using solar panels to produce electricity: Storage. This technique immediately turns directly into chemicals, which are then readily stored with existing infrastructure and distributed on demand.

Further, ME requires no biomass feedstock or arable land, uses far less water and requires no elaborate post-production , for example. And, once established, the and electrode food sources don’t get used up, so they are more than 90 percent efficient at turning electrons into fuel without further processing. Lovley and colleagues published their experimental results and discuss implications in the current, May issue of mBIO, an online journal of the American Society of Microbiology.

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Professor Derek Lovley describes microbial electrosynthesis in this excerpt from "New uses for microorganisms". Video produced by UMass News; © 2009 University of Massachusetts

Findings are being presented this week at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual meeting in San Diego, which runs from May 23-27.

“One reason this process is so exciting is that we go directly from to fuel, bypassing all kinds of difficulties encountered in producing fuels from biomass. We’re very excited about the high efficiencies and the promise of extremely high payback for the investment in this new alternative energy process,” says Lovley.

At present, their bench-top process produces small quantities of fuel, but a recent $1 million initial grant from the U.S. Department of Energy means work at UMass Amherst will proceed on developing larger scale production. The grant and recent recognition of his lab as one of the nation’s most promising incubators were gratifying, but Lovley says he’s even more thrilled to be developing a technology that could decisively free us from dependence on greenhouse gas-emitting foreign oil.

This new technology is based on the discovery in the UMass Amherst lab that some bacteria can feed on electrons delivered by electrodes. These microbes live on the electrodes and use electrons released from them as their food source. “This is basically a new form of photosynthesis, in which carbon dioxide and water are combined to produce organic compounds, and oxygen is released as a byproduct,” Lovley explains.

Electric energy powers the microbes to “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “exhale” fuels and chemicals. Any source of electricity will do, but the technology is primarily designed to be used with solar panels as a source of clean, renewable solar energy. A notable advantage to this new method is that the photovoltaics, or solar panels, can harvest solar energy 100 times more effectively than plants.

Right now the main product is acetate or acetyl-Co A, a basic building block or “central intermediate” from which all sorts of fuels and other chemicals can be easily produced, notably butanol, which is a direct replacement for gasoline and deliverable through existing pipelines. “Acetyl-Co A is central to all biology and bacteria can be directed to make almost anything from this,” Lovley says.

In practical terms, the closed ME system Lovley envisions could be located anywhere sunlight is available, and harvested with an array of . As he explains, “It’s a two-electrode system. One electrode extracts electrons from water and produces oxygen as a byproduct. The electrons travel to the second electrode where the bacteria are, and they take in carbon dioxide and spit out acetate. With further engineering the bacteria are expected to also be able to produce fuels or other valuable commercial chemicals, for example, butanediol, used to make plastics. ”

If positioned next to a smokestack, the process could reduce the carbon footprint of existing CO2 emitters such as power plants, Lovley confirms.

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User comments : 8

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Caliban
3.7 / 5 (3) May 25, 2010
Closer and closer. Just a matter of time until a real breakthrough process is developed, that can be implemented on a large-scale basis.
Parsec
not rated yet May 25, 2010
Raw materials are CO2, and water. Where does the water come from in the desert? I wonder what piping in large quantities of water does to the economics.
goldengod
not rated yet May 25, 2010
Piping water from the ocean is a far more efficient option than waiting 100mil years for it to happen naturally.

With correctly designed systems gravity could be used for the bulk of the transport process.
Sanescience
not rated yet May 26, 2010
Hopefully this or similar will put the final nail in the coffin for the idea that Hydrogen should be used to store and transport energy.
LKD
1 / 5 (1) May 28, 2010
Sanescience,
Hydrogen is the most prolific element in all the universe. If we don't learn to harness it, we are doomed. Not to the least of which is that most rockets will never get into space without it.

Nice article, I wish I could read the full report. I am curiuos about the chemical process. It would be really interesting if this somehow could be adopted for other purposes.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 28, 2010
Nice article, I wish I could read the full report. I am curiuos about the chemical process. It would be really interesting if this somehow could be adopted for other purposes.

This abstract is very narrow in it's focus. I was able to see the microbial lab at UMass recently. They have some really intriguing things going on utilizing microbes and microbial process to generate some incredible things, albeit on a very small scale.
LKD
5 / 5 (1) May 28, 2010
Even in small scale, it's a step to doing the impossible. Very interesting times we live in now. It's like the atomic age for science once more.
MikeLisanke
not rated yet May 30, 2010
Sanescience,
Nice article, I wish I could read the full report. I am curiuos about the chemical process. It would be really interesting if this somehow could be adopted for other purposes.


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