Bacteria that acts like a reverse fuel cell – producing biofuel from carbon dioxide

Geobacter bacteria
University of Massachusetts researchers have received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to pursue their research into the Geobacter bacterium.  The researchers have found a way to make the Geobacter bacteria produce biofuel when hit with a tiny amount of electricity.  The process is called microbial electrosynthesis (ME).

The normal Geobacter bacterium actually generates a tiny amount of electricity – they have these long protein tubes sticking out of their bodies and proteins inside the tubes conduct electrons from the inside of their bodies to the outside – thereby producing a tiny amount of electricity.  What the researches have done is to tweak the Geobactor to reverse this process – the bacteria now feed on electrons from graphite electrodes, and uses the power along with carbon dioxide to produce biofuel “electrofuels” such a butanol or octanol.  As UMass microbiologist Derek Lovley explains, “ME is basically a new form of photosynthesis, in which carbon dioxide and water are combined to produce organic compounds and oxygen is released as a byproduct.”

The UMass group has a small demonstration project currently set up on the roof of their lab.  Solar panels produce the small amount of electricity needed and the Geobactor are grown directly on the electrodes.  The team is now using the grant money to figure out how best to scale up their process. “One reason this grant is so exciting is that we go directly from carbon dioxide to fuel, bypassing all kinds of difficulties that are encountered in producing fuels from biomass,” says Lovley.  “We are very excited about the high efficiencies of this method and the promise of extremely high payback for the investment in this new alternative energy process.” Other groups are also working in this new area.  A Harvard group using the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis earlier received a $4 million grant for their research. UMass press release:  White House Selects UMass Amherst Researcher to Receive Funding to Convert Carbon Dioxide Emissions to Fuels via:  NY Times – Getting the Bugs Out, a New Approach to Renewable Fuels

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