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The last few years have shown that bacteria can “poop out” some mighty useful (and valuable) stuff – whether it be gold or battery power. Now a team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has created the world’s first biogasoline from that ever-malleable and sometimes lethal bug: E.coli. Not only that, but KAIST’s biogasoline has “identical composition and chemical properties to conventional petrol.”
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This is not the first time that bacteria has been used to create fuel. In fact, it is specifically E.coli—the same unsavory beast responsible for sometimes lethal food poisoning—that has been transformed into a fuel that has a near-identical composition to diesel, by both LS9 in the US and by a UK firm.
But KAIST’s project could, in the future, prove more commercially viable than the bacteria biodiesel. Additionally, the biogasoline has a 30 percent higher energy content than traditional biofuels. The process, developed Prof. Lee Sang-yup and his team at KAIST engineers, see the E.coli “fed glucose, found in plants or other non-food crops,” with “the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids,” the WSJ reports.
From there the teams’s challenge was, according to Clean Technica, to “produce the short hydrocarbon chains, or alkanes, characteristic of gasoline. The goal is to produce chains of four to twelve carbon atoms. Previous efforts came close at 13-17 carbon atoms, but that only gets you to biodiesel.”
So KAIST created a means to produce these short chains, engineering “metabolic pathways to focus on short-chain fatty acid production,” and converting the fatty acids to their corresponding gasoline alkanes. Professor Lee explained, “The significance of this breakthrough is that you don’t have to go through another process to crack the oil created by E. coli to produce gasoline. We have succeeded in converting glucose or waste biomass directly into gasoline.”
Before we get too excited, the bacteria-derived fuel is a long, long way from being commercially viable. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “KAIST lab is creating only a few drops of the fuel per hour—making just 580 milligrams of gasoline from one liter of glucose culture,” with the team working up to producing three grams of gasoline per liter per hour, and then increasing from there.
So while our cars won’t run on bacteria poop anytime soon, Prof. Lee’s research is still a milestone for the field.