Researchers coax bacteria to make biodiesel

Biofuel company LS9, along with government-funded researchers, have developed a way to convert non-food plants into biodiesel in a single step, promising lower costs.

Biofuel start-up LS9 and California researchers on Wednesday claimed a breakthrough in converting non-food biomass into biodiesel using a genetically modified form of e. coli bacteria.

The research, done with the University of California at Berkeley and the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), is a step toward lowering the cost of making biodiesel from wood chips, corn stover, and other residual agricultural products. The group published its results in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

A diagram of LS9's one-step process for converting biomass into diesel fuel. LS9

LS9 is one of a handful of U.S. synthetic biology companies that are manipulating microorganisms to convert plants into liquid fuels or plastics.

Next week, LS9 will announce the planned location of a demonstration facility in the U.S. to convert sugar cane into biodiesel using an existing organism, said Stephen del Cardayre, the vice president of research and development at the company. That plant, which will use an existing microorganism, will open this summer and pave the way for large-scale manufacturing and sales in 2012, he said.

Its research with the University of California and the Department of Energy also focuses on a single-step biorefinery process. But researchers tuned another strain of e. coli that can work with different feedstocks, such as straw or wood. Those cellulosic feedstocks are typically harder to convert into fuel through fermentation than sugar cane or corn, but offer the potential of lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.

This second-generation process will take "a few years" to further develop, Del Cardayre said. But because it avoids costly pretreatment processes, it promises to lower the cost of production. "This demonstrates for the first time that you can engineer e. coli to leverage complex biomass feedstocks and convert them into advanced biofuels, which is how you connect the dots to lower cost," he said.

 

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