Biofuels Biodiesel made from E.coli

Published on April 24th, 2013 | by James Ayre


Diesel On Demand — E.Coli Bacteria Engineered To Produce Pure Diesel Fuel

April 24th, 2013 by  

Diesel on demand — researchers at the University of Exeter have developed a method of producing pure diesel with E.coli bacteria. The new diesel is nearly identical to the conventional form, and apparently does not need to be blended with petroleum products as other biodiesels typically do. The multinational oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, commonly known as Shell, contributed to the research.

Biodiesel made from E.coli

Image Credit: Marian Littlejohn

There are significant commercialization challenges that face the new technology, but it’s still an interesting development.

The new diesel is created through the use of specialized E. coli bacteria, which turn the sugars supplied to them into fats to build their cell membranes (as all E.coli do). But with carefully chosen changes to the bacteria, it becomes possible to create the synthetic fuel. E.coli is already widely used in the pharmaceutical industry in a similar capacity.

One of the significant advantages of this new diesel, and why oil companies are so interested in it, is that it is completely compatible with current infrastructure. All of the engines, pipelines, and tankers that are currently in use can simply continue being used. No changes necessary.

Professor John Love from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said: “Producing a commercial biofuel that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset. Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral biofuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect.”

Rob Lee from Shell Projects & Technology said: “We are proud of the work being done by Exeter in using advanced biotechnologies to create the specific hydrocarbon molecules that we know will continue to be in high demand in the future. While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialisation, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel, along with other intelligent technologies, we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.”

While it’s easy to see why the technology is appealing to those in the industry, it remains a very open question whether it will ever be widely used. Or whether it even should be. Whether “carbon neutral” or not, there are significant downsides to any form of diesel, that simply aren’t there with renewable energy and electric vehicles. Among the most significant and obvious downsides is air pollution — why use biodiesel when it’s possible to switch over to forms of transportation that release no air pollution at all?

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • serebyani

    This is old news , it’s been being done in the US using a prairie grass for a few years now, glad its finally getting some support and interest.

  • Otis11

    While this is a great technology and I hope they can commercialize it soon and ramp up production, it has a fatal flaw that will likely keep it from being our final solution – It requires sugar as an input. That means it is competing with food crops… (and more than that, we have limited land suitable for crops, more crop land = more environmental impact)

    Definitely great for areas where batteries are unsuitable though! (or even long term storage!)

    • Ronald Brakels

      Well, we could produce glucose in a bioreactor using LED light powered by wind and solar and use that to produce the biodiesel. Producing biodiesel or glucose across an electricity gradient is also technically possible. But electrifying most transport and using oil or natural gas for what’s left and removing CO2 released from the atmosphere and sequestering it is also an option. We’ll have to see which option is cheaper.

      • Otis11

        Ok, well, to be honest I’m not familiar with that technology, but I would think it would be a whole lot more efficient to use battery technology… and if batter technology isn’t acceptible for that particular application, it would likely make sense to alter that application to use methane.

        But then again I don’t know the costs of producing glucose via LED lights.

        And agreed, we’ll see which one plays out, but I would be strongly against the “release and capture later” approach as it is ripe for abuse. If you have a system that’s inherently carbon neutral, there’s no way to abuse it (From a carbon standpoint that is)

        • Ronald Brakels

          If we rapidly electrify most ground transport the price of oil will fall, so using oil and then capturing the released CO2 may turn out cheaper than using biofuels. And even if we never drill another oil well, currently existing wells will continue to produce some oil for over 100 years in some cases. Since we’re guaranteed a trickle of oil the most economic option will probably be to use it and then capture and sequester the CO2 released. And while some concern is justified, obtaining carbon credits by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it is no more open to abuse than many other things modern civilisation depends upon for survival.

  • James Wimberley

    “Why use biodiesel when it’s possible to switch over to forms of transportation that release no air pollution at all?”

    Where are the ready-to-go technologies for electric propulsion of ships and heavy trucks? I would add aircraft, but they use kerosene. Other teams are working on bio-kerosene.

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