People are gradually losing interest in fossil fuels, because in a not so faraway time there may not be any fossil fuels to take interest in first of all. Then, there are the gas prices, the energy security issue and the gas emissions that could ruin everything.
So biofuel seems to be just what we need: extracted from microbes, this type of fuel could be the future of transportation. So far, production costs are high, but the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University has found a way to drastically reduce them.
One way to obtain cheap biofuel is by improving its source, namely Cyanobacteria, a photosynthetic microbe that contains high-energy fats. The biofuel is extracted from them, but its tough membrane makes it fairly difficult to do it. By reprogramming the microbes to have a softer, easier-to get-through membrane, the costs are substantially reduced.
The research team decided to inject genes into the bacteria, which disintegrate the membrane lipids and help release the fatty acids. Actually, lipases – fat-degrading enzymes – are smart enough to clasp the fatty acids from the photosynthetic membranes.
First time the researchers tried doing the trick with nickel, but finally decided for the blocking of the carbon dioxide supply. Now from the lab to the large-scale photo-bioreactors: researchers will be able to test their discoveries in reactors designed by the institute’s Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology.
If all goes as planned, the result of 70 to 80% cuts in costs will impact us in a new economic way: the future of 600 to 900 million metric tons of biomass in 2030 looks brighter with a reduced energy dependency on fossil fuels. Still, we shouldn’t get too excited yet: the prices are volatile, reaching up to $140 per metric ton in 2007 dollars.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are paralleling a research study of their own, testing Aspergillus niger – a fungus that operates the same way as the enzymes eating on the membrane cell. So, in an optimistic tone, we believe that there ought to be a breakthrough from either of these efforts; at least one of them if not both!