Bacteria for blastoff: using microbes to make supercharged new rocket fuel

July 3, 2022 |

In California, biofuel scientists used an oddball molecule made by bacteria to develop a new class of biofuels predicted to have greater energy density than any petroleum product, including the leading aviation and rocket fuels, JetA and RP-1.

“This biosynthetic pathway provides a clean route to highly energy-dense fuels that, prior to this work could only be produced from petroleum using a highly toxic synthesis process,” said Jay Keasling, a synthetic biology pioneer and CEO of the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI). “In addition, as these fuels would be produced from bacteria fed with plant matter – which is made from carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere – burning them in engines will significantly reduce the amount of added greenhouse gas relative to any fuel generated from petroleum.”

A paper describing the biosynthesis process and showing the projected energy density was just published in the journal Joule. The team is now working to scale-up production. Eventually, the scientists hope to engineer the process into a workhorse bacteria strain that could produce large quantities of molecules from plant waste food sources – such as inedible agricultural residue and brush cleared for wildfire prevention – potentially making the ultimate carbon-neutral fuel.

“With petrochemical fuels, you get kind of a soup of different molecules and you don’t have a lot of fine control over those chemical structures. But that’s what we used for a long time and we designed all of our engines to run on petroleum derivatives. The question that led to this discovery is: ‘What kinds of interesting structures can biology make that petrochemistry can’t make?’” said Eric Sundstrom, a research scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU).

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Category: Research

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