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Natural Oil Production from Microorganisms

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
ARPA-E Award: 
Cambridge, MA
Project Term: 
07/15/2010 to 03/31/2014
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Graphic of MIT's technology
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: 

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.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, MIT 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.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
The project significantly advanced the technologies needed for commercialization of biofuel production based on chemo-autotrophic organisms. Through licensing, the biotechnology company Novogy acquired the use of MIT’s genetically engineered yeast biocatalysts for the production of lipids. Improvements continue to be made at both MIT and Nogovy. Using glucose as the feedstock, the team has increased lipid concentration to values demonstrating commercial potential in anticipated first markets such as animal feed. 
MIT’s goal was to produce an infrastructure-compatible fuel starting from CO2 and H2 instead of sugars. The target fuel was energy-dense lipids called triacyglycerideds (TAGs). To do so, it developed a two stage reactor system. With its University of Delaware partners, the team engineered C. ljungdalhii, a chemoautotroph capable of producing acetate from CO2 and H2 at high productivity and yield. The team then devised a strategy to create TAGs through the overexpression of the enzymes acetyl-CoA carboxylase (ACC) and diacylglycerol (DAG) in the yeast, demonstrating a five-fold increase in lipid content. The team created significant improvements in oil production from sugar and leveraged their technical accomplishments to demonstrate the integration of chemoautotrophic production of acetate followed by heterotrophic lipid production.   
For a detailed assessment of the MIT project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Ramon Gonzalez
Project Contact: 
Dr. Gregory Stephanopoulos
Harvard University
University of Delaware
Release Date: