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Biofuels DOE researchers develop microbe to convert plants directly into isobutanol, a gasoline substitute

Published on March 8th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


U.S. Department of Energy Announces New Biofuel to Replace Gasoline

March 8th, 2011 by  

DOE researchers develop microbe to convert plants directly into isobutanol, a gasoline substituteThings are moving along at a nice clip in the world of biofuel research, so it seems like news of another “breakthrough” is barely enough to provoke a yawn. Well, this latest piece of news sure stands out from the crowd. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has just announced that a research team headed up by the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center has developed a cost effective method for converting woody plants straight into isobutanol, which can be used in conventional car engines just as gasoline.

Biofuel and Green Jobs, Too

In his announcement, Chu was quick to point out that biofuel production has the potential to create new jobs in rural parts of the country. Though some of those jobs might come from putting more farmland into production, the most important thing about DOE’s new isobutanol process is that it does not necessarily rely on new agricultural production. Aside from cultivated biofuel crops, it can use the woody waste from other crops including wheat and rice straw, corn stover, and lumber waste. Handling, transporting and refining these wastes is probably where a good deal of the new employment would occur.

Biofuel, from Farm to Gas Tank

Scientists from the BioEnergy Science Center (an offshoot of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory) worked with researchers from the University of California to develop a new strain of the microbe Clostridium celluloyticum. As its name implies, C. celluloyticum is a natural at breaking down cellulose. The problem is that different species can only produce certain aspects of the process, so the new strain combines those various talents in one microbe. The result is a process that breaks down plant matter and produces isobutanol in one relatively inexpensive step, in contrast to the multi-stage process demanded of conventional biofuel production.

Green Jobs for Microbes

Non-edible woody plant matter is a potential biofuel gold mine, but until now the problem has been to find low cost, energy efficient ways of breaking down the cellulose – the “wood” part of the plant cells – to get at the soft innards that can be converted to fuel. Microbes have proved up to the job, and that’s just one example of their role in new green tech. They’re also being put to work cleaning up polluted sites, powering fuel cells, and even transforming wastewater into bioplastic.

Image: Cylinders and beakers by Horia Varlan on flickr.com.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • J.Waldhorn

    DEAR Sir’s


    • Tina Casey

      J. Waldhorn, moderating standards vary from writer to writer. Generally, I’ll post any comment that is readable, contains no gratuitous slurs, stays on topic, and steers clear of over-the-top generalizations. I also try to avoid posting comments that are simply meant to publicize the commentor’s personal business, product or website.

  • David H.

    This will just lead mass land clearing for the sake of bio-mass. Remember that the non-edible woody materials are edible to the plants after decomposition. If we continue to strip our land of compostable materials, it will become dead, I.E. desert. The fertilizers we are spreading on our land now just keep crops on life support long enough to harvest. We ingest the leftovers and complain about cancer.

    • Tina Casey

      Good point, without balance and planning we’ll be out of the frying pan, into the fire.

    • diesel in petrol engine

      David thanks for sharing info.

  • Max

    If combined hydrogen-superconductivity fuel cell mass manufacture were put on fast track funding. Utility & oil firms shut out; we would get somewhere on the energy issue. It would revolutionize everything and oil be outmoded. The elasticity of oil is straight up and does not flatten. Oil can and will go to the price of and ounce of gold per barrel of oil and there would be the same profit. Maybe then there will be something other than talk it to death. We have arrived at (even though somewhat benevolent) the most comprehensive system of slavery ever devised by the human brain. You can be sure it is orchestrate.

    • Kevin

      You should invest if you think the price is going that high.  Embrace the free market.

  • ResearcherGuy

    This is a great breakthrough in the world of cellulosic biofuel. I’m surprised that the private companies doing it for the last 2-3 years aren’t noted but it’s still good.

    However, as with everything else, the caveats need to be clear and well reported on. Taking such waste to make gasoline for general use would require so much that soil nutrient depletion would be disasterous. This should be considered only for air travel and heavy machinery (both of which are now diesel/kerosene based). With a few combined technologies like the very low friction twin crank engine design in Germany, the rotary valve head from Coates CSRV and a good turbo, this would prove much better than any alternative for the big boys. For the rest of IC engine needs like commuting and errands, we should first consider hyper efficient mass transportation like skytran with localized BEVs, NEVs and even Segways. Note that all these are easier to do privately than with government support… Which, I’m guessing, is why this development is years after the private sector demonstrated it.

  • trans

    So this is how they spend our tax dollars… on ways to keep the oligarchs in power after the oil dries up.

    • Tina Casey

      trans, I think the future energy mix will be much more diverse and decentralized than it is today…on the other hand if stakeholders keep sitting out elections, things will continue on as always.

  • In exchange for getting away from gasoline?

    • Tina Casey

      If you mean isobutanol as a sub for gasoline, that’s the general idea.

  • infini

    there is a movement towards electric motors and other non-combustion engines that are cleaner and can draw upon other sources of energy.

    this whole ‘innovation’ seems a step backwards to me

    read about Lonnie Johnson’s JTEC solar fuel cell. this is the future:


    • Tina Casey

      infini I think you’re heading in the right direction in terms of the type of power generation that will dominate future energy, but there will still be plenty of room for other kinds of sustainable fuels that serve smaller markets and unique needs.

      • infini

        my only question is: can combustion engines ever be truly clean (zero carbon footprint)?

        the answer to this must include production and transportation of the fuel required.

        but i do agree that it is better than gasoline but be wary of the environmental impact and potential affect it may have on the global commodities market (like biofuel from corn has done)

        • Tina Casey

          Yes infini, once again there is no such thing as a free lunch. Every energy source will have impacts that need to be anticipated and managed.

    • bwoods

      What is everyone’s thrill about electric cars? We need another fuel type? Has everyone forgotten where we get the major part of our electricity from to power the electric cars?

      • Tina Casey

        Good point, bwoods. I assume you’re talking about coal and oil-fired power plants. Ideally, electricity generated by wind, solar and other renewables would replace fossil fuels.

        • Kevin

          Did you know that many wind turbines require an IC engine to start?

      • Eletruk

        Everyone’s thrill about electric cars is the multitude of sources for energy to power them. Wind, solar, hydroelectric, coal, natural gas, methane, and more. How many sources of gasoline are there? Do you even have the possibility of producing your own gasoline? EVs you can put solar panels on your roof and generate your own fuel. You can subscribe to 100% renewable for your EV and eliminate the CO2 from the equation entirely. Try doing that with any gas vehicle or even most alternative fuel vehicles.

        • Kevin

           What about the oil required to make every plastic and rubber component on the car?  Also, where do you dispose of the battery at the end of its life?

    • Kevin

       IC engines aren’t going away anytime soon.  Solar cells need a cheaper membrane to be feasible without the current government backing/crutch.

  • Michael

    Hold your horses,everyone.Has it occurred to anyone that cellulose “waste” is not really waste? How does the soil get renewed and kept fertile if “waste” is fully harvested and used to produce liquid fuels?

    • Tina Casey

      Good point Michael, and based on the willy-nilly development of corn ethanol under the last administration, it should be clear that the next generation of biofuels has got to be planned out in a way that sustains all aspects of the environment.

    • MOB

      We will see how they all feel when “Big Timber” replaces “Big Oil” and starts clear cutting everything.

      • Tina Casey

        MOB your point is well taken. There is no such thing as a free lunch and if biofuels are going to be truly sustainable, then land stewardship is going to have to keep up.

  • MOB

    Yeah this is a bad idea.

    • Tina Casey

      MOB, if you’re checking back here could you please elaborate?

  • Blargh

    Did any of you ever consider that the processing required to create this fuel probably has as many downsides as gasoline, and with the amount of people dependent on gas, can we ever produce enough?

    Example – If it takes 20 truckloads of waste material to make 1 barrel of Isobutanol is it even worth it?

    • Tina Casey

      Hi Blargh, you’re right to point out that balance is the key. We’re too used to having only one basic type of fuel for vehicles. In the future not every vehicle will run on biofuel. There is electricity (ideally from renewable sources) and fuel cells, for starters.

  • Terry

    Ok, great. So what the hell are we waiting for? Let’s get a how-to and a basic design in the public domain and let’s get this moving!
    Unfortunately, I have doubts that it will even happen.

  • Dangerous for some engines… 1/3 do not support biofuel…

    • Tina Casey

      Reviewer, please provide a link to support your statistic.

  • Tangelia Reed

    It’s about time. They should turn our waste and pollution into something useful like syngas. But how long is this going to take; another 10 years….

    • Tina Casey

      The pace of the research will depend partly on the amount of funding available. If the federal and state budgets continue to be cut, then the private sector could take up the slack…or not…

  • Dr.A.Jagadeesh

    Excellent post by Tina Casey.

    Extensive research is on on Biofuels in US. Being naturally occurring biomass will be a boon when converted to biofuels. Algal biofuels is another promising option.

    Here is interesting development “a technology to convert n-biobutanol into jet and diesel fuels”.
    Cobalt signs CRADA with U.S. Navy
    By Erin Voegele | November 10, 2010((Biorefining MAGAZINE)
    Mountain View, Calif.-based Cobalt Technologies Inc. has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the U.S. Navy to develop a technology to convert n-biobutanol into jet and diesel fuels.
    Cobalt’s technology involves the use of naturally occurring microorganisms to convert biomass into n-biobutanol via fermenation. “We found these microorganisms that take cellulosic sugars, [such as those from] decaying roots and plant matter, and convert it into butanol,” said Cobalt President and CEO Rick Wilson. On a commercial basis, Cobalt is focused on the conversion of waste biomass, such as wood waste.
    There are several forms of butanol, including n-butanol, isobutanol and sec-butanol. Each butanol molecule contains four carbon atoms. The way these atoms arrange determines what type of butanol is produced. N-butanol, or normal butanol, is characterized by carbon atoms that form a straight line, while the carbon atoms in isobutanol form a “T” shape, Wilson said.
    Each type of butanol has different characteristics, and is more appropriate for use in different applications. One example, said Wilson, is the comparative octane values of isobutanol and n-butanol. While isobutanol has an octane value of 100, n-butanol has an octane value of 87. The higher octane value of isobutanol is one reason that many biobutanol producers making the isobutanol molecule are targeting the gasoline blending market.
    The n-butanol molecule produced by Cobalt can be used in a wide range of applications, Wilson said. These include plastics, polymer and lacquer manufacturing. It can also be used to make propylene, which goes into polypropylene, or ethylene, to make polyethylene, he added. While Cobalt’s primary focus is the production of bio-based jet fuel, dehydrated n-butanol can also be introduced into existing petrochemical refineries to make renewable gasoline and diesel. “It’s really an amazing platform molecule,” Wilson said.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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