The State News: MSU, MIT research alternative fuel
Michigan State University recently received a $1.7 million grant from the US Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to build a reactor system for Ralstonia eutropha, a bacterium that scientists aim to engineer to metabolize hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce isobutanol, a fuel that can be used as a replacement for gasoline.
R. Mark Worden, MSU professor of chemical engineering, is bioreactor expert and part of the team set to capitalize on the bacterium’s potential ability to produce an alternative fuel for automobiles.
Anthony Sinskey, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leads the genetic engineering team.
The process to produce the alternative fuel — called isobutanol — involves allowing the bacterium to use hydrogen to produce liquid fuels. Says Worden, “microorganisms have been used to make liquid fuels like ethanol for a long time, but this a different type (of liquid fuel). It’s more compatible with automobiles we have now than ethanol is.”
Currently, 12 billion gallons of ethanol, another alternative fuel, are produced in the U.S., said Bruce Dale, an MSU professor of chemical engineering and an expert in exploring alternative fuels. But isobutanol potentially has several advantages over ethanol.
Isobutanol poses no competition between food and energy, and the microorganisms that produce isobutanol would consume carbon dioxide, a green house gas.
Gas is more similar to isobutanol than ethanol, which would allow isobutanol to be distributed through existing pipelines and used in cars with greater ease and fewer modifications.
Compared to the electrical car, isobutanol has the ability to fuel larger vehicles that could not run on battery power.
Sinskey expects to know if the commercialization of isobutanol is possible within the next several years. “Hopefully in three years we will be able to determine the feasibility of going to the next phase of translating basic science into commercial strategies,” he has said.
If the fuel can be commercialized, it's expected to hit the market within the next decade.
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