California Scientists Create E.Coli-based Fuel That’s Much More Efficient Than Ethanol

Scientists develop E.coli strain the shows promise as a biofuelU.S. scientists say they can turn E.coli, a strain of bacteria present in the human digestive tract, into a fuel that is twice or three times more efficient than ethanol. The scientists, attached to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) managed to create a strain for the first time that generates alcohol with five carbon atoms per molecule instead of the regular two or three. That´s important because the larger, longer chain molecules contain more energy, something of a “holy grail” for the fuel industry.

The scientists published the results of their studies in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). They speculated that in the near future they might be able to create alcohol molecules with eight carbon atoms.

E.coli, which is mostly found in dangerous quantities on polluted beaches, can be altered so that each cell can generate “long-chain alcohol”. The bacteria that result from this process excrete a type of fuel that can be used in the airline industry. Gas and other petroleum products also stand to benefit from the excretion process.

This energy efficiency in turn is a significant factor in helping reducing global warming. “We wanted to create larger, longer-chain molecules because they contain more energy,” the researchers comment in their study, adding that they proved that humans are not limited by what nature creates.The researchers point out that they believe E.coli is best suited to be used with organic materials in the same way that ethanol is extracted from an organic (food) product like corn. “This is significant in the production of gasoline and even jet fuel,” the scientists assert. By comparison, ethanol has only two carbon atoms per molecule.

The E.coli´s genetic system is relatively well known. The authors of the study said they also liked it in particular because it grows quickly and can be engineered easily. But the scientists added that their method opens the door to many more possibilities because it can be used on many different organisms. That means that manufacturers of polymers for instance gain from the insights produced, as does the drug manufacturing industry.

Image credit: shawn.leishman, flickr

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