By Tim Montgomery

April 29, 2010 

The U.S. Department of Energy has selected 37 projects for major federal stimulus funding through their Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) venue to pursue breakthrough energy research. BioTechnology Institute faculty member Larry Wackett is lead investigator for a University of Minnesota team which will receive $2.2 million in funding to explore production of liquid hydrocarbon transportation fuels directly from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide using bacteria.

Liquid hydrocarbons extracted from sedimentary rock are the basis of current petroleum fuels. They are a principal source of energy after refining and combustion, and society is heavily invested in the infrastructure necessary for their production, transport and use. But fossil hydrocarbon fuels like coal and petroleum add carbon to the atmosphere when burned, contributing to ozone depletion and climate warming through increased greenhouse gases.

The team of University researchers proposes to create clean-burning liquid hydrocarbon fuels from renewable biological sources – in this case, two different types of bacteria cultured together.

“The idea is to make more hydrocarbons through biological processes,” explained Wackett. “The processes would be continual and not involve the use of heat energy or the interruption of starting over with new cultures as in the fermentation of ethanol.”

The idea for a “biohydrocarbon” project came about from a collaborative effort between the Wackett Lab and the lab of Jeffrey Gralnick which identified genes involved in the production of a very large hydrocarbon. Working with the Shewanella bacterium, Dave Sukovich, a Ph.D. student in the Wackett lab, discovered a way to significantly broaden the products of this pathway – going from one specific long-chain hydrocarbon to a diverse range of hydrocarbons, reminiscent of an actual fuel profile.

“Shewanella bacteria will be the platform that we develop into a biohydrocarbon production system,” commented Gralnick, who was particularly excited about the novel way in which ‘food’ would be provided for Shewanella to use in making hydrocarbons.”

Working in partnership with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), University researchers will use a photosynthetic bacteria developed by PNNL that can convert light and carbon dioxide to “feed” the hydrocarbon-producing Shewanella bacteria being altered at the BioTechnology Institute for scaled-up production. A latex biofilm developed by former BioTechnology Institute faculty member Michael Flickinger and the late L. E. (Skip) Scriven, an Institute of Technology professor, and produced by university start-up BioCee Inc. will provide the environment for growth of the bacteria. University specialists in chemical engineering will work on “cracking” the thick hydrocarbon output to produce fuel. The availability and contribution of specialists and materials located in close proximity at the University was one of the factors that enhanced the proposal, according to Wackett.

“The view of the people at ARPA-E was that instead of using different yeasts in fermentation, they wanted to hear more proposals that had potential to change the industry,” concluded Wackett. “This is a high-risk, high-reward venture.”

Click here to read the announcement on the DOE ARPA-E website.

Click here to read the University of Minnesota press release. 

Click here to read the NY Times article.

Click here to read a related article about BioCee in the Star Tribune.

Click here to hear Larry Wackett on NPR’s Living on Earth.