Biological wizardry ferments carbon monoxide into biofuel

July 26, 2016 by Melissa Osgood

Cornell University biological engineers have deciphered the cellular strategy to make the biofuel ethanol, using an anaerobic microbe feeding on carbon monoxide - a common industrial waste gas.

"Instead of having the waste go to waste, you make it into something you want," said Ludmilla Aristilde, assistant professor in biological and . "In order to make the microbes do our work, we had to figure out how they work, their metabolism."

Aristilde collaborated with her colleague Lars Angenent, professor of biological and environmental engineering, on the project. She explained, "The Angenent group had taken a waste product and turned it into a useful product."

To make biofuel from inorganic, gaseous industrial rubbish, the researchers learned that the bacterium Clostridium ljungdahlii responds thermodynamically - rather than genetically - in the process of tuning favorable enzymatic reactions.

Synthetic gas - or syngas - fermentation is emerging as a key biotechnological solution, as industrial-sized operations are looking to produce ethanol from their gaseous streams, according to Angenent, a fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. The scientists sought to grasp the physiological nature of the process: "These findings are important for the syngas fermentation community to design future strategies to improve production," Angenent said.

The scientists found the microbe feasts on and then ferments . "When I eat food, I get energy out of my food by metabolizing my food," Aristilde said, an Atkinson fellow. "Microbes are the same. In terms of biostructure, the bacterial cells are starving for nutrients, so they are responding metabolically - which leads to a desired outcome, ."

To get the microbe to ferment the carbon monoxide, scientists "bubble it in the growth medium solution," explains Angenent, where the cells can feed on it. Angenent said emitted as a byproduct of heavy industries - such as the process for coking coal in the production of steel - can potentially be channeled to bioreactors that contain these bacterial cells.

Said Aristilde: "The microbial cells then turn it into , an organic molecule. And carbon monoxide, an inorganic molecule, turns into something valuable we can use. That's what makes this special."

The study, "Ethanol Production in Syngas-Fermenting Clostridium ljungdahlii Is Controlled by Thermodynamics Rather Than by Enzyme Expression," was published in the May 2016 issue of Energy and Environmental Science.

Explore further: Researchers upgrade ethanol to a better fuel

Related Stories

Microbe produces ethanol from switchgrass without pretreatment

April 13, 2015

The conventional strategy for producing ethanol from plant biomass requires costly pretreatment and enzyme-driven reactions. Refining another strategy known as consolidated bioprocessing (CPB) could reduce costs. In second-generation ...

Bacterial food web may be key to cystic fibrosis

January 13, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Cystic fibrosis patients suffer from chronic bacterial infections and thick mucous in their lungs, due largely to a combination of microbial infections and resulting inflammation. A common pathogen, Pseudomonas ...

Fuel and chemicals from steel plant exhaust gases

July 1, 2015

Carbon monoxide-rich exhaust gases from steel plants are only being reclaimed to a minor extent as power or heat. Fraunhofer researchers have developed a new recycling process for this materially unused carbon resource: They ...

Recommended for you

Ringing the changes: Dutch bike lock blocks rider's phone

June 21, 2017

A telecom company in the Netherlands has teamed up with the country's traffic safety authority to develop a bicycle lock that also blocks its mobile network, in a move aimed at protecting young riders who regularly pedal ...

0 comments

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.