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Scott Banta, a chemical engineering professor at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, has won a federal grant to come up with a bacteria that can produce the biofuel butanol by growing on carbon dioxide and ammonia. The carbon dioxide will come from ambient air, not fossil fuels, and the ammonia will come from wastewater or it can be generated through a chemical process using sustainably generated electricity.
The use of microbes to generate sustainable energy is under intense development, both to produce biofuels and to produce electricity in the form of microbial fuel cells, an area that the U.S. Navy has already caught on to. Banta notes that the use of an ammonia-oxidizing organism makes this project unique. It also involves one of those sustainability twofers that we love: while helping the U.S. turn away from the increasing risks of fossil fuel harvesting, it also may also help reclaim and recycle wastewater.
Professor Banta will work with Kartik Chandran, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering who among other areas has studied emissions from certain types of sewage treatment processes, and with Alan West, professor of chemical engineering. The team aims to use genetic engineering to devise a new metabolic pathway for a bacterium called N. europaea, which is commonly used in wastewater treatment, with the ultimate goal of reducing the cost of butanol production. The cost factor is important because right now ethanol has the advantage on price, but butanol has properties that would make it easier to integrate into the existing distribution and transportation network.
Part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is dedicated to creating new green jobs in a variety of fields including biofuel production. ARRA is providing $543,000 for Banta’s project, as part of a $106 million round of funding through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. In addition to the Columbia project, 36 other research projects received funding, including a dozen focused on microbial electro-biofuel development. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the current subsidies for oil, gas, and coal, but hey you have to start somewhere. President Obama has proposed ending those subsidies, and if even part of those funds are transferred to sustainable energy research perhaps the coming years will bring speedier progress.
Image: Subway at Columbia University by dstahl on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.