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Microorganisms for Liquid Transportation Fuel

ARPA-E's Electrofuels program is using microorganisms to create liquid transportation fuels in a new and different way that could be up to 10 times more energy efficient than current biofuel production methods. ARPA-E is the only U.S. government agency currently funding research on electrofuels.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here.  

Columbia University

Biofuels from CO2 Using Ammonia or Iron-Oxidizing Bacteria in Reverse Microbial Fuel Cells

Columbia University is using carbon dioxide (CO2) from ambient air, ammonia--an abundant and affordable chemical--and a bacteria called N. europaea to produce liquid fuel. The Columbia University team is feeding the ammonia and CO2 into an engineered tank where the bacteria live. The bacteria capture the energy from ammonia and then use that energy to convert CO2 into a liquid fuel. When the bacteria use up all the ammonia, renewable electricity can regenerate it and pump it back into the system--creating a continuous fuel-creation cycle. In addition, Columbia University is also working with the bacteria A. ferrooxidans to capture and use energy from ferrous iron to produce liquid fuels from CO2.

Ginkgo Bioworks

Engineering E. coli as an Electrofuels Chassis for Isooctane Production

Ginkgo Bioworks is bypassing photosynthesis and engineering E. coli to directly use carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce biofuels. E. coli doesn't naturally metabolize CO2, but Ginkgo Bioworks is manipulating and incorporating the genes responsible for CO2 metabolism into the microorganism. By genetically modifying E. coli, Ginkgo Bioworks will enhance its rate of CO2 consumption and liquid fuel production. Ginkgo Bioworks is delivering CO2 to E. coli as formic acid, a simple industrial chemical that provides energy and CO2 to the bacterial system.

Harvard University

Engineering a Bacterial Reverse Fuel Cell

Harvard University is engineering a self-contained, scalable electrofuels production system that can directly generate liquid fuels from bacteria, carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and sunlight. Harvard is genetically engineering bacteria called Shewanella, so the bacteria can sit directly on electrical conductors and absorb electrical current. This current, which is powered by solar panels, gives the bacteria the energy they need to process CO2 into liquid fuels. The Harvard team pumps this CO2 into the system, in addition to water and other nutrients needed to grow the bacteria. Harvard is also engineering the bacteria to produce fuel molecules that have properties similar to gasoline or diesel fuel--making them easier to incorporate into the existing fuel infrastructure. These molecules are designed to spontaneously separate from the water-based culture that the bacteria live in and to be used directly as fuel without further chemical processing once they're pumped out of the tank.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Development of an Integrated Microbial Electrocatalytic (MEC) System for Liquid Biofuel Production from CO2

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is improving the natural ability of a common soil bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to use hydrogen and carbon dioxide for biofuel production. First, LBNL is genetically modifying the bacteria to produce biofuel at higher concentrations. Then, LBNL is using renewable electricity obtained from solar, wind, or wave power to produce high amounts of hydrogen in the presence of the bacteria--increasing the organism's access to its energy source and improving the efficiency of the biofuel-creation process. Finally, LBNL is tethering electrocatalysts to the bacteria's surface which will further accelerate the rate at which the organism creates biofuel. LBNL is also developing a chemical method to transform the biofuel that the bacteria produce into ready-to-use jet fuel.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Engineering Ralstonia eutropha for Production of Isobutanol (IBT) Motor Fuel from CO2, Hydrogen, and Oxygen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is using solar-derived hydrogen and common soil bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into biofuel. This bacteria already has the natural ability to use hydrogen and CO2 for growth. MIT is engineering the bacteria to use hydrogen to convert CO2 directly into liquid transportation fuels. Hydrogen is a flammable gas, so the MIT team is building an innovative reactor system that will safely house the bacteria and gas mixture during the fuel-creation process. The system will pump in precise mixtures of hydrogen, oxygen, and CO2, and the online fuel-recovery system will continuously capture and remove the biofuel product.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bioprocess and Microbe Engineering for Total Carbon Utilization in Biofuel Production

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is using carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen generated from electricity to produce natural oils that can be upgraded to hydrocarbon fuels. MIT has designed a 2-stage biofuel production system. In the first stage, hydrogen and CO2 are fed to a microorganism capable of converting these feedstocks to a 2-carbon compound called acetate. In the second stage, acetate is delivered to a different microorganism that can use the acetate to grow and produce oil. The oil can be removed from the reactor tank and chemically converted to various hydrocarbons. The electricity for the process could be supplied from novel means currently in development, or more proven methods such as the combustion of municipal waste, which would also generate the required CO2 and enhance the overall efficiency of MIT's biofuel-production system.

Medical University of South Carolina

Electroalcoholgenesis: Bioelectrochemical Reduction of CO2 to Butanol

Medical University of South Carolina (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.

North Carolina State University

H2-Dependent Conversion of CO2 to Liquid Electrofuels by Extremely Thermophilic Archaea

North Carolina State University (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.

Ohio State University

Bioconversion of Carbon Dioxide to Biofuels by Facultatively Autotrophic Hydrogen Bacteria

The Ohio State University is genetically modifying bacteria to efficiently convert carbon dioxide directly into butanol, an alcohol that can be used directly as a fuel blend or converted to a hydrocarbon, which closely resembles gasoline. Bacteria are typically capable of producing a certain amount of butanol before it becomes too toxic for the bacteria to survive. Ohio State is engineering a new strain of the bacteria that could produce up to 50% more butanol before it becomes too toxic for the bacteria to survive. Finding a way to produce more butanol more efficiently would significantly cut down on biofuel production costs and help make butanol cost competitive with gasoline. Ohio State is also engineering large tanks, or bioreactors, to grow the biofuel-producing bacteria in, and they are developing ways to efficiently recover biofuel from the tanks.

OPX Biotechnologies, Inc.

Novel Biological Conversion of Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide Directly into Free Fatty Acids

OPX Biotechnologies is engineering a microorganism currently used in industrial biotechnology to directly produce a liquid fuel from hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). The microorganism has the natural ability to use hydrogen and CO2 for growth. OPX Biotechnologies is modifying the microorganism to divert energy and carbon away from growth and towards the production of liquid fuels in larger, commercially viable quantities. The microbial system will produce a fuel precursor that can be chemically upgraded to various hydrocarbon fuels.

Pennsylvania State University

Development of Rhodobacter as a Versatile Platform for Fuels Production

Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) is genetically engineering bacteria called Rhodobacter to use electricity or electrically generated hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuels. In collaboration with the University of Kentucky, Penn State is taking genes from oil-producing algae called Botryococcus braunii and putting them into Rhodobacter to produce hydrocarbon molecules, which closely resemble gasoline. Penn State is developing engineered tanks to support microbial fuel production and determining the most economical way to feed the electricity or hydrogen to the bacteria, including using renewable sources of power like solar energy.

University of California, Los Angeles

Electro-Autotrophic Synthesis of Higher Alcohols

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is utilizing renewable electricity to power direct liquid fuel production in genetically engineered Ralstonia eutropha bacteria. UCLA is using renewable electricity to convert carbon dioxide into formic acid, a liquid soluble compound that delivers both carbon and energy to the bacteria. The bacteria are genetically engineered to convert the formic acid into liquid fuel--in this case alcohols such as butanol. The electricity required for the process can be generated from sunlight, wind, or other renewable energy sources. In fact, UCLA's electricity-to-fuel system could be a more efficient way to utilize these renewable energy sources considering the energy density of liquid fuel is much higher than the energy density of other renewable energy storage options, such as batteries.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Electrofuels Via Direct Electron Transfer from Electrodes to Microbes

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) is feeding renewable electricity to bacteria to provide the microorganisms with the energy they need to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into liquid fuels. UMass Amherst's energy-to-fuels conversion process is anticipated to be more efficient than current biofuels approaches in part because this process will leverage the high efficiency of photovoltaics to convert solar energy into electricity. UMass Amherst is using bacteria already known to produce biofuel from electric current and CO2 and working to increase the amount of electric current those microorganisms will accept and use for biofuels production. In collaboration with scientists at University of California, San Diego, the UMass Amherst team is also investigating the use of hydrogen sulfide as a source of energy to power biofuel production.

Learn more about ARPA-E’s Electrofuels program, which is using microorganisms to create liquid transportation fuels in a new and different way that could be up to 10 times more energy efficient than current biofuel production methods.
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