Research may result in biofuel production from atmospheric CO2

By University of Georgia | March 26, 2013

Excess carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere created by the widespread burning of fossil fuels is the major driving force of global climate change, and researchers the world over are looking for new ways to generate power that leaves a smaller carbon footprint.

Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products. Their discovery may soon lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the carbon dioxide in the air that is responsible for trapping the sun's rays and raising global temperatures.

"Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do-absorb it and generate something useful," said Michael Adams, member of UGA's Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants use for energy, much like humans burn calories from food.

These sugars can be fermented into fuels like ethanol, but it has proven extraordinarily difficult to efficiently extract the sugars, which are locked away inside the plant's complex cell walls.

"What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman," said Adams, who is co-author of the study detailing their results published March 25 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. "We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass."

The process is made possible by a unique microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or "rushing fireball," which thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents. By manipulating the organism's genetic material, Adams and his colleagues created a kind of P. furiosus that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.

The research team then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the microorganism that incorporates carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical used to make acrylics and many other products.

With other genetic manipulations of this new strain of P. furiosus, Adams and his colleagues could create a version that generates a host of other useful industrial products, including fuel, from carbon dioxide.

When the fuel created through the P. furiosus process is burned, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide used to create it, effectively making it carbon neutral, and a much cleaner alternative to gasoline, coal and oil.

"This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels," Adams said. "In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales."

The research was supported by the Department of Energy as part of the Electrofuels Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy under Grant DE-AR0000081.



6 Responses

  1. Jim Cassidy



    It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the research being conducted in the electrofuels space. I conducted an extensive interview with Dr. Adams' collaborator at North Carolina State, Dr. Mike Kelly, along with representatives of most of the other ARPA-E Electrofuels Program efforts for my documentary-in-progress, "A Most Convenient Convergence." Dr. Kelly's discussion of the role this technology can play in the development of a carbon-neutral nation is one of the highlights of my film; some of that discussion is contained in the YouTube trailer for my film, which can be seen here -

  2. Jim Cassidy



    Correction: Dr. Robert Kelly is Dr. Adams' collaborator at NC State, not Mike Kelly. sorry for the mistake.

  3. Kelpie Wilson



    This sounds real nice, but --- where does the hydrogen come from? Natural gas?

  4. Jim Cassidy



    Natural gas would work, and the projected price of natural gas is sometimes used to forecast costs of electrofuels production. The intent is to use hydrogen separated from water using a renewable source of energy. Other researchers in the program are avoiding hydrogen by feeding energy as electrons directly to the cell, or using electrochemically generated formate as feedstock.

  5. Tom Busch



    So... I don't understand. Are we going to start using water to produce "energy"?? How will this compete for other uses of water, which is getting scarcer as population increases?? And, at what point does removing CO2 for these microorganisms start to reduce growth rates of row crops and forest trees??

  6. Jim Cassidy



    Tom 1) The electrofuels processes store energy rather than produce it. Ideally, the energy is from a renewable source. In some of the systems, the renewable electrical energy is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The microbe eats the hydrogen, along with carbon dioxide, and produces an easily stored liquid fuel, or a commodity chemical, or human or animal food. 2)CO2 before the Industrial Revolution was near 280 part per million (ppm). In about 250 years, we have moved that number up to around 390 ppm. If we start being a net consumer of CO2, we won't have to worry till we get back down below 300 ppm. And if we think it might be a problem, all we have to do is set a pile of tires or a rainforest on fire...


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