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University of California, Davis (UC Davis)
ARPA-E Award: 
Davis, CA
Project Term: 
01/07/2014 to 09/30/2017
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Image of UC Davis' technology
Critical Need: 
Natural gas can be found in abundance throughout the United States, and is often used for heating, cooking, and electrical power generation. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, an energy-rich compound not widely used for transportation. Currently, there are no commercially viable biological approaches to convert methane into liquid fuel, and synthetic approaches are expensive and inefficient at small scales. To take advantage of the country's remote natural gas resources, such as off-shore methane, new biological processes that use special microorganisms called "biocatalysts" are needed to transform methane into liquid fuel. These small-scale processes could provide an environment advantage since they would be carbon neutral or better relative to traditional fuels.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) will engineer new biological pathways for bacteria to convert ethylene to a liquid fuel. Currently, ethylene is readily available and used by the chemicals and plastics industries to produce a wide range of useful products, but it cannot be cost-effectively converted to a liquid fuel like butanol, an alcohol that can be used directly as part of a fuel blend. UC Davis is addressing this problem with synthetic biology and protein engineering. The team will engineer ethylene assimilation pathways into a host organism and use that organism to convert ethylene into n-butanol, an important platform chemical with broad applications in many chemical and fuel markets. This technology could provide a transformative route from methane to liquid biofuels that is more efficient than ones found in nature.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, UC Davis' new biocatalyst would enable cost-effective conversion of ethylene into an existing infrastructure-compatible fuel.
An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels significantly reducing demand for foreign oil.
This technology would allow for utilization of small-scale remote natural gas resources or methane and carbon rich gas residues for fuel production reducing harmful emissions associated with conventional fuel technologies.
Expanding U.S. natural gas resources via bioconversion to liquid fuels could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy while reducing or stabilizing transport fuel prices.
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact: 
Dr. Shota Atsumi
Release Date: