Genetically Modified Bacteria for Fuel Production

Genetically Modified Bacteria for Fuel Production

University Park,
Project Term:
07/01/2010 - 06/30/2014

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:

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.

Potential Impact:

If successful, the Penn State team 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.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Ramon Gonzalez
Project Contact:
Dr. Wayne Curtis
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


University of Kentucky

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