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 Michigan team will develop a biological approach to activate methane, the first step in creating a liquid fuel from natural gas. Current approaches to methane activation require the addition of oxygen and energy in the form of heat, which is inefficient and costly. The University of Michigan’s multidisciplinary team will engineer a methane-generating microorganism that can activate methane without the need for these additional inputs. The University of Michigan will use computer models to understand the processes on a molecular level and predict the structure of new enzymes and chemical interactions. Once modeled and engineered, the University of Michigan’s optimized organism and process would provide a way to produce butanol, a drop-in liquid fuel.
If successful, the University of Michigan’s biocatalyst will convert natural gas to a liquid fuel efficiently and cost-effectively at small scale, allowing for greater utilization of natural gas reserves as a fuel source.
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.