Liquid Fuel from Microbial Communities

Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC)
Electroalcoholgenesis: Bioelectrochemical Reduction of CO2 to Butanol
Graphic of MUSC's technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$2,662,602
Location: 
Charleston, SC
Project Term: 
07/09/2010 to 01/08/2015
Project Status: 
ACTIVE
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: 
MUSC is developing an engineered system to create liquid fuels from communities of interdependent microorganisms. MUSC is first pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) and renewable sources of electricity into a battery-like cell. A community of microorganisms uses the electricity to convert the CO2 into hydrogen. That hydrogen is then consumed by another community of microorganisms living in the same system. These new microorganisms convert the hydrogen into acetate, which in turn feed yet another community of microorganisms. This last community of microorganisms uses the acetate to produce a liquid biofuel called butanol. Similar interdependent microbial communities can be found in some natural environments, but they've never been coupled together in an engineered cell to produce liquid fuels. MUSC is working to triple the amount of butanol that can be produced in its system and to reduce the overall cost of the process.
Impact Summary: 
If successful, MUSC would create a liquid transportation fuel that is cost competitive with traditional gasoline-based fuels and 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels.
Security: 
Cost-competitive electrofuels would help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil and increase the nation's energy security.
Environment: 
Widespread use of electrofuels would help limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce demands for land, water, and fertilizer traditionally required to produce biofuels.
Economy: 
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.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Ramon Gonzalez
Project Contact: 
Dr. Harold May
Partners
CDM Smith
Clemson University
University of South Carolina