The name E. coli rightly brings to mind the thought of wretched and occasionally fatal illness due to food poisoning. However, in the world of biofuels, the same pesky bacteria might end up doing some good.
Researchers at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have found that by using a modified form of the E. coli bacteria, they can actually make biofuels more efficiently. Gevo, a Pasadena, Calif.-based biofuel startup that is licensing the technology through an exclusive royalty-bearing license, could benefit from the research.
With material costs rising and venture dollars running out, the biofuel industry is facing major struggles. Companies have seen margins shrink and stock prices fall (see Imperium Reduces Staff, Imperium IPO Delay Underlines Feedstock Shortage, Biofuels Gain Green Despite Troubles, Ethanol's Tough Times Continue, Ethanol Margins Suffer, Biofuels Get Funding as an Ethanol Plant Gets Canceled, E3 Plant Craps Out, and Another Ethanol Plant Gets Canceled).
With the limited availability of crops such as corn and sugar cane, which are easily converted into ethanol, a number of researchers and entrepreneurs have turned to the possibility of producing the fuel from waste cellulose and other materials.
In just the last week, for example, GM invested an undisclosed sum in Coskata, a startup that claims its bacteria and bioreactor technology can produce ethanol for less than $1 per gallon. And German automaker Daimler teamed up with Archer Daniels Midland and Bayer CropsScience to develop biodiesel from jatropha while BlueFire Ethanol Fuels closed $15 million to make ethanol from waste (see With GM Deal in Hand, Coskata Promises $1 Ethanol and The Week: Biofuel Firms Suffer, Turn to New Feedstocks).
But so far, cellulosic ethanol has proven less efficient and more costly -- a difficult sell in today's market -- but researchers, such as those at UCLA, hope they can change the situation.
While ethanol isn't as efficient as traditional fossil-fuel gasoline, the UCLA team says it can use the modified E. coli bacteria to efficiently produce so-called "higher-chain alcohols," which have an energy density closer to gasoline than to ethanol.
In particular, the team claims to have achieved high-yield, high-specificity production of isobutanol from glucose -- the first production of a higher-chain alcohol from a renewable source with high yields.
Researchers say that the E. coli aids in efficiently producing "higher-chain alcohols," such as isobutanal, from biomaterials. The exact output numbers of this so-called "high-yield" production are not noted in the release.
However, if the team is successful in making higher-chain alcohol at larger scales, it will get one added bonus. Ethanol faces the challenge of corrosion due to water absorption, making the fuel difficult to store and distribute using existing infrastructure. Higher-chain alcohols potentially could avoid that problem.
The UCLA researchers aren't the only ones working to make fuel using E. coli.
Biofuel companies Amyris Biotechnologies and LS9 also have said they're working with modified E. coli strains, along with other bacteria, to try to make biofuels cheaper and more abundant (see more here and here).