Turning Bacteria into Fuel

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OPEN 2009
Tempe, Arizona
Project Term:
01/01/2010 - 06/30/2013

Critical Need:

Direct solar fuel technologies use photosynthetic microorganisms to produce liquid fuels directly from solar energy. Many photosynthetic microorganisms already produce fuels and fuel precursors, such as fatty acids and hydrocarbons. The challenge is finding cost-effective ways for the microorganisms to efficiently produce and excrete these fuel products in large quantities and in forms that can be easily incorporated into the existing transportation fuel infrastructure. Meeting this challenge is critical because it would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and limit harmful emissions from traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Arizona State University (ASU) is engineering a type of photosynthetic bacteria that efficiently produce fatty acids—a fuel precursor for biofuels. This type of bacteria, called Synechocystis, is already good at converting solar energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) into a type of fatty acid called lauric acid. ASU has modified the organism so it continuously converts sunlight and CO2 into fatty acids—overriding its natural tendency to use solar energy solely for cell growth and maximizing the solar-to-fuel conversion process. ASU's approach is different because most biofuels research focuses on increasing cellular biomass and not on excreting fatty acids. The project has also identified a unique way to convert the harvested lauric acid into a fuel that can be easily blended with existing transportation fuels.

Potential Impact:

If successful, ASU would develop a more efficient way to produce and incorporate biofuels into the existing transportation fuel infrastructure.


Increasing production of domestic biofuels could help the U.S. cut foreign oil imports by 33% in 15 years.


The ASU project is creating a carbon-neutral system by recycling CO2 from fuel combustion back into a fuel. It also doesn't require the arable land or intensive farming practices associated with current biofuel crops.


Widespread use of biofuels would help reduce and stabilize gas prices for consumers.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum
Project Contact:
Prof. Wim Vermaas
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


Diversified Energy Corporation
North Carolina State University

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