Biofuel Gets Another “Never Surrender!” Moment

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The world of biofuel is having a down moment just now, as is practically every other part of the energy universe. Nevertheless, signs of a green rebirth are ever blooming. The latest development involves cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae, an organism that has delighted, bedazzled, and frustrated biofuel fans for a generation.

algae biofuel cyanobacteria
“Adjacent wild-type (green) and mutant (grey) cyanobacterial microcolonies grown in single layer” by Jeffrey C. Cameron and Kristin A. Moore, RASEI.

What’s All This About Biofuel From Cyanobacteria?

In terms of living organisms, cyanobacteria is quite the odd bird. Here’s an explainer from UC Berkeley that barely scratches the surface:

“Cyanobacteria are aquatic and photosynthetic, that is, they live in the water, and can manufacture their own food…They have the distinction of being the oldest known fossils, more than 3.5 billion years old, in fact! It may surprise you then to know that the cyanobacteria are still around; they are one of the largest and most important groups of bacteria on earth.”

Cyanobacteria are pulling their own weight in the clean tech field, too. Applications are emerging in solar energy and methane conversion among other sustainability talents.

More to the point, cyanobacteria have a plant-like ability to convert water and carbon dioxide into oil with an assist from sunlight, which makes sense considering that cyanobacteria deposits from back in the Proterozoic period are a source of fossil oil today.

Of course, there’s a catch. Mother Nature took her time about converting cyanobacteria to usable fuel. The Proterozoic period began 2.5 billion years ago, for those of you keeping score at home. We don’t have quite as much time, and then of course you have to consider the energy input required to squeeze biofuel out of tiny organisms, along with other matters that stand in the way of producing an economically competitive fuel.

Biofuel Breakthrough For Cyanobacteria

Despite the challenges, biofuel fans are excited about cyanobacteria, compared to other biomass at hand, because they grow much faster than regular plants and they fix carbon twice as efficiently. If only somebody could figure out exactly what makes them tick, that would help speed the way to an efficient biofuel system.

One key area of research involves the carboxysome protein complex, which is the site where cyanobacteria fix carbon.

That brings us, finally, to the latest development. A team of researchers with the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder (in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) figured out how to engineer cells with a single carboxysome, and track it for more than 60 hours as it passed from one generation to the next.

As a result, they were able to pinpoint which carboxysomes were behaving more efficiently than others. Only 5% qualified for the “ultraproductive” category, which means there is plenty of room for improvement.

The next steps will involve figuring out how to get the other 95% to up their carbon-fixing game. That won’t necessarily mean that we’ll all be driving on cyano-mobiles one day, but it could lead to methods for modifying other biofuel crops — switchgrass for example — to increase yield.

Biofuel After COVID-19

Speaking of cyano-mobiles, all the way back in 2009 ExxonMobil launched a biofuel partnership with the firm Synthetic Genomics, which they extended in 2013 with a focus on foundational research. The research involved cyanobacteria, which technically is not algae despite the familiar moniker of blue-green algae.

The two companies reaffirmed the renewable fuel partnership again in 2017 but they’re going to have to pick up the pace a bit if they want to participate in the green recovery. After all, there will be plenty of wiggle-room for liquid fuel over the next 10 years or so.

On the other hand, there are already some indications that electric vehicles could have the edge over their gas-powered cousins when auto sales pick up on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis.

In an interesting twist on the economic impact of COVID-19, the red-hot delivery sector could accelerate the EV trend as powerful stakeholders (looking at you, Amazon) turn up the heat on fleet electrification.

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Photo (screenshot): “Adjacent wild-type (green) and mutant (grey) cyanobacterial microcolonies grown in single layer” by Jeffrey C. Cameron and Kristin A. Moore, RASEI.

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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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