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Synthetic Pathway for Methanol Conversion

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
High Efficiency Methanol Condensation Cycle (MC2)
Image of UCLA's technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$3,000,000
Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
Project Term: 
01/01/2014 to 06/30/2017
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
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, Los Angeles (UCLA) will develop a high-efficiency, synthetic metabolic pathway that transforms methanol into n-butanol, a liquid fuel that can be used as a direct substitute for gasoline due to its high energy density. In nature, the process by which organisms that feed on methane convert it into fuel is inefficient, resulting in a substantial loss of carbon in the process. UCLA's synthetic metabolic pathway would oxidize the methanol into formaldehyde, convert the formaldehyde into an essential metabolite known as acetyl-CoA, and then condense the acetyl-CoA into n-butanol. In the end, UCLA's pathway would transform 4 parts methanol into 3 parts water and 1 part n-butanol while achieving 100% carbon conversion. UCLA will also attempt to move this synthetic metabolic pathway into organisms capable of biological methane activation to create a complete methane to n-butanol microbial production system.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, UCLA's technology will achieve 100% carbon conversion of methanol to n-butanol, and could easily integrate with advances in upstream methane activation.
Security: 
An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels significantly reducing demand for foreign oil.
Environment: 
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.
Economy: 
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.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact: 
Mr. Tony Wu
Release Date: 
9/19/2013