Turning Bacteria into Fuel

Arizona State University (ASU)
Cyanobacteria Designed for Solar-Powered Highly Efficient Production of Biofuels
Graphic of ASU's technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$6,799,288
Location: 
Tempe, AZ
Project Term: 
01/01/2010 to 06/30/2013
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Direct solar fuel technologies use photosynthetic microorganisms to produce liquid fuels directly from solar energy. Many photosynthetic microorganisms already produce fuels and fuel precursors, such as fatty acids and hydrocarbons. The challenge is finding cost-effective ways for the microorganisms to efficiently produce and excrete these fuel products in large quantities and in forms that can be easily incorporated into the existing transportation fuel infrastructure. Meeting this challenge is critical because it would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and limit harmful emissions from traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
ASU is engineering a type of photosynthetic bacteria that efficiently produce fatty acids--a fuel precursor for biofuels. This type of bacteria, called Synechocystis, is already good at converting solar energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) into a type of fatty acid called lauric acid. ASU has modified the organism so it continuously converts sunlight and CO2 into fatty acids--overriding its natural tendency to use solar energy solely for cell growth and maximizing the solar-to-fuel conversion process. ASU's approach is different because most biofuels research focuses on increasing cellular biomass and not on excreting fatty acids. The project has also identified a unique way to convert the harvested lauric acid into a fuel that can be easily blended with existing transportation fuels.
Impact Summary: 
If successful, ASU would develop a more efficient way to produce and incorporate biofuels into the existing transportation fuel infrastructure.
Security: 
Increasing production of domestic biofuels could help the U.S. cut foreign oil imports by 33% in 15 years.
Environment: 
The ASU project is creating a carbon-neutral system by recycling CO2 from fuel combustion back into a fuel. It also doesn't require the arable land or intensive farming practices associated with current biofuel crops.
Economy: 
Widespread use of biofuels would help reduce and stabilize gas prices for consumers.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum
Project Contact: 
Prof. Wim Vermaas
Partners
BioCee
Diversified Energy Corporation
North Carolina State University