Mining the Deep Sea for Microbial Ethano- and Propanogenesis

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Cambridge, Massachusetts
Project Term:
08/01/2018 - 09/30/2020

Critical Need:

As feedstock for a multitude of chemicals, polymers, and fuels, ethane and propane are critical components of the nation’s petrochemical industry. Currently, they are extracted, along with methane, from fossilized natural resources as part of natural gas extraction and processing. Because of their compatibility with modern infrastructure and significant resource size, ethane and propane are expected to be highly leveraged feedstocks for chemical production for decades to come. Despite such potential, few new successful strategies have been developed to increase yields and improve production scalability. Additionally, adjusting to changes in demand can be difficult, since the availability of both products is coupled directly with natural gas production. To address this challenge, potentially new bioprocesses may be capable of real-time conversion of renewable biomass to ethane and propane.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Harvard University will develop new methods to harness naturally occurring microbial communities for the biological production of ethane and propane. Strong indirect evidence suggests that ethane and propane are produced in the ocean by communities of benthic microorganisms in unique deep-sea sediments under specific conditions. The team will target the microbial communities in the ethane- and propane-rich hydrothermal sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. During the project, the team will recover and characterize seafloor sediment from the basin with the goal of identifying the biological processes underlying ethane and propane production, as well as the geochemical and physical conditions required to stimulate and sustain production. The team will also use a competitiveness analysis to evaluate the industrial relevance and scalability of these processes in a laboratory environment. If successful, this work could contribute significantly to the production of valuable ethane and propane from renewable feedstocks for subsequent production of “green” chemicals, products, and fuels.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact:
Peter Girguis
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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