Liquid Fuel from Heat-Loving Microorganisms

North Carolina State University (NC State)
H2-Dependent Conversion of CO2 to Liquid Electrofuels by Extremely Thermophilic Archaea
Graphic of NC State's technology
ARPA-E Award: 
Raleigh, NC
Project Term: 
07/01/2010 to 12/31/2014
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Domestic biofuels are an attractive alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels. Biofuels are produced from plant matter, such as sugars, oils, and biomass. This plant matter is created by photosynthesis, a process that converts solar energy into stored chemical energy in plants. However, photosynthesis is an inefficient way to transfer energy from the sun to a plant and then to biofuel. Electrofuels--which bypass photosynthesis by using self-reliant microorganisms that can directly use the energy from electricity and chemical compounds to produce liquid fuels--are an innovative step forward.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
NC State is working with the University of Georgia to create electrofuels from primitive organisms called extremophiles that evolved before photosynthetic organisms and live in extreme, hot water environments with temperatures ranging from 167-212 degrees Fahrenheit. The team is genetically engineering these microorganisms so they can use hydrogen to turn carbon dioxide directly into alcohol-based fuels. High temperatures are required to distill the biofuels from the water where the organisms live, but the heat-tolerant organisms will continue to thrive even as the biofuels are being distilled--making the fuel-production process more efficient. The microorganisms don't require light, so they can be grown anywhere--inside a dark reactor or even in an underground facility.
Impact Summary: 
If successful, NC State would create a liquid transportation fuel that is cost competitive with traditional gasoline-based fuels and 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels.
Cost-competitive electrofuels would help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil and increase the nation's energy security.
Widespread use of electrofuels would help limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce demands for land, water, and fertilizer traditionally required to produce biofuels.
A domestic electrofuels industry could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy. Widespread use of electrofuels could also help stabilize gasoline prices--saving drivers money at the pump.
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Ramon Gonzalez
Project Contact: 
Prof. Robert Kelly
University of Georgia