Molecular Scissors Help Trim the Cost of New Biofuel

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ASU team develops method for trimming high energy fat from bacteriaThe halcyon days of corn ethanol will soon be but a fleeting memory in the world of biofuels, as new possibilities open up in more sustainable sources, from algae and waste cooking oil to orange peels and poplar trees. A team at Arizona State University is even focusing on the ability of bacteria to secrete energy-rich fats for biofuel. Though the research looks promising, cost has been a key sticking point. However, the team has developed a kind of “molecular scissor” that can separate the bacteria from its excess fat in one simple, inexpensive step. Move over, Jenny Craig!

Biofuel from Bacteria

The ASU team has been experimenting with cyanobacteria, a type of microbe that creates energy from the sun through photosynthesis, like a plant. If the name rings a bell, you may have read about phthalocyanines. These common dyes are used to make blue jeans blue, and they are also being developed for solar power. Cyanobacteria has the potential to produce biofuel feedstock more efficiently than conventional biofuel crops, but extracting the fat involves numerous complicated, expensive steps.

Cheaper Biofuel from Bacteria

The researchers developed a solution that relies on the natural ability of fat-degrading enzymes to function like “molecular scissors.” Called lipases, these enzymes can trim fatty acids from the bacteria’s photosynthetic membrane, without requiring additional steps. So far, the team has examined lipases drawn from other bacteria, fungi, and animal sources. The next step is to scale up the results in large photobioreactors. The reactors are still in the design phase so don’t hold your breath, but the ASU team is confident that the research will ultimately be scaled up to commercialization.

Pesky Meddling Federal Funds

Arizona’s economy suffered a blow last year when the state’s new immigration bill became law, but according to ASU’s press release, the state hopes to revive local industries partly through strategic investments in new green tech. Arizona doesn’t have an ideal climate for growing conventional biofuel crops, but it does have plenty of warm sunshine for growing cyanobacteria on a commercial, job-creating scale – if the ASU team’s research pans out. Weirdly, of late it’s become fashionable for state representatives in Congress to turn down federal funds for all kinds of projects, but in this case nobody seems to have objected. The research is being funded in part by a $5 million grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program.

Image: Scissors by blmurch on flickr.com


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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