Making fuel from bacteria: Genetically-modified cyanobacteria could be more efficient than ethanol

March 13, 2013, KTH The Royal Institute of Technology
Paul Hudson, a researcher at the School of Biotechnology at KTH, shows the algae used to make fuel.

In the search for the fuels of tomorrow, Swedish researchers are finding inspiration in the sea. Not in offshore oil wells, but in the water where blue-green algae thrive.

The of blue-green algae – sunlight, carbon dioxide and bacteria – are being used by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to produce butanol, a -like fuel for motor vehicles.

The advantage of butanol is that the raw materials are abundant and renewable, and production has the potential to be 20 times more efficient than making ethanol from corn and .

Using genetically-modified cyanobacteria, the team linked butanol production to the algae's natural metabolism, says Paul Hudson, a researcher at the School of Biotechnology at KTH who leads the research. "With relevant genes integrated in the right place in cyanobacteria's , we have tricked the cells to produce butanol instead of fulfilling their normal function," he says.

The team demonstrated that it can control butanol production by changing the conditions in the surrounding environment. This opens up other opportunities for control, such as producing butanol during specific times of day, Hudson says.

Hudson says that it could be a decade before production of from cyanobacteria is a commercial reality.

"We are very excited that we are now able to produce biofuel from cyanobacteria. At the same time we must remember that the is very different from today's biofuels," he says. "We need to improve the production hundredfold before it becomes commercially viable.

Already, there is a demonstrator facility in New Mexico, U.S. for producing from algae, which is a more advanced process, Hudson says.

One of Sweden's leading biotechnology researchers, Professor Mathias Uhlén at KTH, has overall responsibility for the project. He says that the use of engineering methods to build genomes of is a relatively new area. A bacterium that produces cheap fuel by sunlight and carbon dioxide could change the world.

Hudson agrees. "One of the problems with biofuels we have today, that is, corn ethanol, is that the price of corn rises slowly while jumping up and down all the time and it is quite unpredictable," he says. "In addition, there is limited arable land and corn production is also influenced by the price of oil, since corn requires transport.

"Fuel based on cyanobacteria requires very little ground space to be prepared. And the availability of raw materials - sunlight, carbon dioxide and seawater - is in principle infinite," Hudson says.

He adds that some cyanobacteria also able to extract nitrogen from the air and thus do not need any fertilizer.

The next step in the research is to ensure that cyanobacteria produce butanol in larger quantities without it dying of exhaustion or butanol, which they cannot withstand particularly well. After that, more genes will have to be modified so that the end product becomes longer hydrocarbons that can fully function as a substitute for gasoline. And finally, the process must be executed outside of the lab and scaled up to work in industry.

There are also plans to develop fuel from cyanobacteria that are more energetic and therefore particularly suitable for aircraft engines.

Explore further: Cars could run on recycled newspaper, scientists say

More information: The project is formally called Forma Center for Metabolic Engineering, and it involves researchers Chalmers University in Sweden. It has received about EUR 3 million from the nonprofit Council Formas.

Related Stories

Cars could run on recycled newspaper, scientists say

August 25, 2011

Here's one way that old-fashioned newsprint beats the Internet. Tulane University scientists have discovered a novel bacterial strain, dubbed "TU-103," that can use paper to produce butanol, a biofuel that can serve as a ...

Engineered bacteria make fuel from sunlight

January 7, 2013

Chemists at the University of California, Davis, have engineered blue-green algae to grow chemical precursors for fuels and plastics—the first step in replacing fossil fuels as raw materials for the chemical industry.

Chemicals and biofuel from wood biomass

December 19, 2011

( -- A method developed at Aalto University in Finland makes it possible to use microbes to produce butanol suitable for biofuel and other industrial chemicals from wood biomass. Butanol is particularly suited ...

Engineering alternative fuel with cyanobacteria

January 7, 2013

(—Sandia National Laboratories Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to liquid fuels, but she has also found that the process cuts the bacteria's ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 13, 2013
Cyanobacteria count among the most ancient and powerful biotic forces on Earth. It's indeed a good idea to try to use them. I wish these guys will succeed.
1 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
Joule Unlimited has been using cynobacteria to produce diesel and ethanol for a couple years. They're currently building out a 1000 acre facility in New Mexico. They say they can produce the diesel for $1.20@gallon.
1 / 5 (10) Mar 14, 2013
I'm trying to be patient with this. Read about a few years ago. I dream of the world-changing dynamics.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.