Over the past few years, the number of headlines relating to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed, and it’s pretty much all bad news. However, one scientist has been looking for ways to turn our collective frowns upside down, and now he thinks he’s found it. Harvard Professor of Energy Daniel G. Nocera says he’s engineered a bacterium that inhales CO2 and excess hydrogen and then turns them into alcohol fuel.
Nocera, known as the man who invented the artificial leaf five years ago, has been working in his research lab at Harvard to develop bacteria that could perform as well as plants, which convert carbon dioxide into fuel at a rate of about five percent. Skeptics said he would have a difficult time matching that rate, and many were stunned when the chemist announced that his engineered superbug converts sunlight 10 times more efficiently than plants. The bacteria, called Ralston eutropha, consumes hydrogen and CO2, and converts them into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Nocera and his team drew from earlier research by Anthony Sinskey, a professor of microbiology at MIT, and inserted genes that cause the bacteria to convert the ATP to alcohol fuel and excrete it.
The practical applications of a CO2-breathing superbug are virtually unlimited, in part because the resulting alcohol fuels require no additional processing before being used. “Right now we’re making isopropanol, isobutanol, isopentanol,” he said in a lecture to the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago. “These are all alcohols you can burn directly. And it’s coming from hydrogen from split water, and it’s breathing in CO2. That’s what this bug’s doing.”
During his announcement in Chicago on May 18, Nocera joked that the news of this development was “hot off the press.” His study results haven’t even been published yet, but they will be soon in an upcoming issue of the journal Science. From there, he expects a lot of people to get really excited about potential applications. Although, he warns that his superbug isn’t the solution to excess CO2 in our atmosphere. Rather, it could help keep fossil fuels in the ground. “This isn’t solving your CO2 problem,” he said. ”I’m taking CO2 out of the air, you burn it and you put the CO2 back. So it’s carbon neutral.”