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Published on June 17th, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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Weirdest Biofuel Ever Powers Strangest Car Ever

June 17th, 2015 by  


The folks at Columbia University have come up with a “floating engine” that runs on evaporating water and “biofuel” that consists of bacterial spores. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, join the club. We’ve covered microbe-assisted biofuel plenty of times, but this spore business hadn’t crossed our radar before.

Columbia University Eva electric vehicle

Weirdest Biofuel Ever, For Anything

Columbia’s press materials sum up the strange new car in one pithy sentence:

Eva, the first evaporation-powered car, rolls along, thanks to a moisture mill — a turbine engine driven by water evaporating from wet paper strips lining its walls.

Yes, that’s right, the weirdest EV ever has a name and it’s Eva.

Actually, the paper strips only tell part of the story. The secret sauce consists of specially placed rows of bacterial spores dotted onto strips of double-sided plastic tape. The spores swell and shrink when exposed to moisture, which makes the tape go from straight to wavy.

Apparently the spores pack more muscle than other materials that engineers generally use to move objects. The effect is a relatively powerful “artificial muscle” that alternates between long and short, enabling it to tug at whatever it’s anchored to.

The number of small devices that could be powered by this action is innumerable. One is the piston-driven “floating engine” that powers Eva, as shown in this nifty YouTube video (don’t miss the cartoon version, too):



 

Hook up the floating engine to a generator, and you can produce enough electricity to turn on an LED light.

If this seems like small potatoes, the research team has other ideas. Evaporation is a “fundamental force of nature” that is more powerful than wind or waves, according to lead researcher Ozgur Sahin. Here’s his vision for the future:

When evaporation energy is scaled up, the researchers predict, it could one day produce electricity from giant floating power generators that sit on bays or reservoirs, or from huge rotating machines akin to wind turbines that sit above water…

The team is already predicting that a scaled-up version, using stickier tape and far more spores, could produce more power per unit than a wind farm.

If you want more details, check out the team’s paper published at Nature.com, where you’ll find that the spore of choice was a mutated form of Bacillus subtilis spores, which had been engineered to remove most of their outer layers.

More & Better Biofuel

Just the other day, we were talking about what a big week this has been for biofuel news, and that was before we even got wind of the Columbia spore-enabled engine.

On Monday, BMW teased out word of its plans for a fuel cell electric vehicle launch in 2020. We’re thinking that could have something to do with the biofuel — landfill gas, to be precise — source for hydrogen that the company has been messing around with (visit our sister site Gas2.org for more coverage).

The next day there was a threefer. The company Joule updated us on new patents for its cyanobacteria-to-biofuel process powered by sunlight and carbon dioxide, researchers at Tohoku University hit upon a new method for converting algae to biofuel precursors, and a new pathway to converting biomass to jet fuel was announced by a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in partnership with the petroleum giant BP of all people (corporations are people too, remember).

The week isn’t over, so stay tuned.

Image (screenshot): Courtesy of Columbia University via YouTube.

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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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