Wackett research team wins $2.2 million stimulus grant to explore production of hydrocarbons using bacteria

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.


Coal from Algae Study Published

The results of a BioTechnology Institute (BTI) sponsored study on the potential for producing coal from algae were recently published online in ScienceDirect. The study focused on research conducted by Dr. Steve Heilmann at BTI utilizing hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), a wet process that involves ‘pressure-cooking’ the algae. This process creates a char product similar to coal that can be converted into gasoline and other chemicals or burned to generate heat and electricity.

“The advantage of the HTC process is in its simplicity,” says Heilmann. “Through basic heating under moderate pressure, we’re able to make chars of bituminous coal quality and accomplish in a half hour what takes nature millions of years.”

Dr. Heilmann, a University of Iowa graduate, retired after 34 years as a scientist with the 3M Corporation. He is an organic polymer chemist who began working on the algal coal project 2 years ago, utilizing lab space at the Biotechnology Institute at the invitation of former BTI Director Ken Valentas.

“Steve is an accomplished chemist who just had his 100th US patent issued in February,” explained Valentas, who is excited about the potential applications of Heilmann’s research in the arena of biofuels.

The advantages of producing energy from green microalgae are multiple. It carbonizes very quickly – increasing from roughly 45-70% carbon content through dehydration in just a half hour, and, as a growing plant, can double its biomass in 2-3 hours. Burning the resulting char is also carbon neutral, because the process isn’t based on any fossil fuel and doesn’t add any new carbon to the atmosphere. Greater environmental benefits also exist since the green microalgae can be used to capture carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels to fuel its own growth.

According to Heilmann, large-scale success of the project will be determined by whether or not microalgae production can be ramped up and the hydrothermal carbonization process made continuous. “We’ll know within five years if algae can be farmed and whether it can capture carbon dioxide from coal-burning factories.”

An equally important area of future work on algal coal will be to find applications for byproducts of the HTC process. Filtrate from the process has potential use as a soil nutrient for both higher plants and algae because it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Since the carbon char has a microporous structure, it also has potential as an absorbent and filler in polymers.

Others involved in the published algal coal study at the BioTechnology Institute in addition to Heilmann and Valentas included Ted Davis, Lindsey Jader, Paul Lefebvre, Michael Sadowsky, Fred Schendel, and Marc von Keitz.

-Tim Montgomery

Bacteria can Produce Hydrocarbons

By Tim Montgomery
January 1, 2010

Working with synthetic chemist Jack Richman in the lab of Distinguished McKnight University Professor Larry Wackett, graduate student Janice Frias has identified hydrocarbon synthesis in bacteria of the genus Arthrobacter – a key finding in the quest to produce fuels through biosynthesis of hydrocarbons.

The research of Frias and Richman identified a new class of bacteria capable of producing hydrocarbons, the major components of current petroleum-based transportation fuels. If the genes involved in the synthesis can be isolated, it may pave the way for metabolic engineering to produce more effective biomass-based hydrocarbon fuels.

“It was a significant accomplishment from the standpoint of applying synthetic organic chemistry to solving important biological questions regarding the precise structures of the compounds produced,” commented Wackett. He was impressed by the work of Richman, an accomplished chemist who trained with Nobel laureate E.J. Corey at Harvard and has extensive synthetic experience at DuPont and 3M, in contributing his skills and dedication to Frias’ thesis project. “It’s a project that has important societal implications.”