Manufacturing and agriculture could use their biological waste as a source of cleaner, more sustainable energy.
The scientists identified bacteria that can produce ethanol and 1-butanol, as well as other strains that can produce hexane and octane; these chemicals are all chains of bonded carbon and hydrogen (hydrocarbons), the same molecules that make up gasoline.
The Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars trying to create bacteria like these in a lab, but the research team explains that they are already abundant in nature. Rick Korn, lead scientist for the University of Maryland team, explains that the bacteria don’t convert to hydrocarbons in outdoor conditions. The researchers needed to introduce the bacteria to certain thermodynamic conditions to make biofuel.
Thermodynamics describes how temperature changes over time. So, the bacteria only produce hydrocarbons when the temperature is in the right range and changes over time in a certain way, explaining why no one discovered the bacterial strains in a natural environment.
The Maryland researchers discovered these incredible organisms by identifying the appropriate thermodynamic conditions that would induce biofuel production. Then, they took bacterial cultures from the stomachs of cows to isolate the specific strains that make hydrocarbons.
Unfortunately, the bacteria do not produce high amounts of fuels, and it is not yet cost-effective to use them. However, it is great to know that these organisms can be found in nature so that the Department of Energy will not need to spend money trying to find bacteria like this anymore.
The bacteria could also be used to make fuels from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, so with time for development, this research could even help us remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.