Biochemists reveal new twist on old fuel source

May 24, 2011 by Mary‐Ann Muffoletto

( -- Stinging from humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany’s Nazi regime seized on technology developed by chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch that enabled the coal‐rich, petroleum‐poor country to produce synthetic fuels for its military machine. Research in Fischer‐Tropsch or “FT” synthesis waned in the latter half of the 20th century but, like “a bubblin’ crude,” has resurfaced in recent years with growing interest in alternative fuels.

While studying bacterial enzymes, known as nitrogenases, used in nitrogen reduction, Utah State University biochemists Zhi‐Yong Yang and Lance Seefeldt, along with colleague Dennis Dean of Virginia Tech, discovered a molybdenum nitrogenase capable of converting into usable hydrocarbons. The reaction is similar, they say, to FT synthesis.

“This is pretty profound,” says Seefeldt, professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Understanding this process paves the way for developing better ways of converting carbon monoxide, a toxic waste product of combustion, into transportation fuel and precursors for plastics – without the time and energy required for conventional extraction of fossil fuels.”

The scientists’ findings appear in the article “Molybdenum Nitrogenase Catalyzes the Reduction and Coupling of CO to Form Hydrocarbons,” in the June 3, 2011 issue (and May 27 online issue) of . The paper was selected as “Paper of the Week” by the journal’s editorial board, an honor bestowed on the top one percent of more than 6,600 manuscripts reviewed annually

by the publication’s editors. In the “Paper of the Week” feature, Yang, a doctoral candidate mentored by Seefeldt, is highlighted as an up‐and‐coming researcher.

Molybdenum, often called “Moly,” is a brittle, silver‐gray metal found in soil and used in steel alloys. It’s also found, in small amounts, in the human body, where it metabolizes certain amino acids, produces uric acid and helps to break down drugs and toxins.

“There’s tremendous interest in converting various kinds of waste into fuel and, especially, in finding cost‐effective and environmentally clean ways to do it,” says Yang, who earned his first doctorate in organic chemistry at China’s Nankai University.

Unlike coal, Fischer and Tropsch’s original source for synthetic fuels, carbon monoxide produces hydrocarbons with much less pollution. The substance provides an added benefit: it allows scientists to produce longer chain, double and triple‐bond hydrocarbons, which provides a richer feedstock for production of refined transportation fuels.

“Like many waste‐to‐energy processes, we’ve found we can produce such hydrocarbons as propane and butane from carbon monoxide,” Yang says. “But using this process, we may have the potential to produce such transportation fuels as diesel and gasoline that are readily adaptable to today’s vehicles.”

Dinitrogen, Seefeldt says, makes up about 80 percent of the air we breathe. Though essential for all life on the planet, it’s not in a form higher organisms can directly access.

“It’s kind of like being hungry and sitting at a table laden with food but not being able to eat,” he says.

Humans and animals take in nitrogen – in the form of protein – from food; plants obtain nitrogen from soil.

In recent years, Seefeldt has identified key steps involved in nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia. The findings contribute to research that could enable an alternative, clean method of producing nitrogen.

Science and industry currently rely on the century‐old Häber‐Bosch process to produce nitrogen for fertilizer, paper, pharmaceuticals, plastics, mining and explosives. Developed by German Nobel Prize winner Fritz Häber and Carl Bosch during World War I, the process, Seefeldt says, is costly and energy-intensive.

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3.7 / 5 (3) May 24, 2011
Is it just me or did the last 5 paragraphs belong in a different article?
not rated yet May 24, 2011
Two German scientists, WW I, hmmm. The last few paras seem to be an approximation of some sort. Lol!
not rated yet May 24, 2011
And who woulda thunk that "Dinitrogen" would be such a big deal?
not rated yet May 24, 2011
Do you think Dinitrogen would be soluble in Dihydrogen Oxide at room temperature?
3 / 5 (2) May 25, 2011
so this begs the question, if that Moly metal is in the soil and also coal and carbon monoxide, is it not then possible that crude oil is in fact a natural process such as what they are finding in the labs, and not a byproduct of dinosaur decomposition? This would mean the earth is still making crude oil, which I do believe it is.
5 / 5 (1) May 25, 2011

No, not Molybdenum, molybdenum _nitrogenase_. A big complex protein that is a product of life.

Coal is not abiotic.

Nobody has ever suggested oil is made from dinosaurs.

When we are able to trace the oil back to its source rock we invariably find sediments with kerogen and microscopic fossils(e.g. diatoms and algae).

Carbon-12 and carbon-13 are both stable. Photosynthesis discriminates against carbon-13; all the oil we've ever tested has a carbon isotope ratio consistent with a biotic origin.

90% of the oil we are currently producing was formed during just 6 anoxic periods in the Silurian, Upper Devonian-Tournaisian , Pennsylvanian-Lower Permian, Upper Jurassic, middle Cretaceous and Oligocene-Miocene.

This would mean the earth is still making crude oil, which I do believe it is.

This is an academic question; the rates of oil production are infinitesimal in either case. If there are large quantities of abiotic oil somewhere, we have yet to find it.

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