Genetically engineered bacteria could help preserve fossil fuels

The bacteria can take CO2 out of the air and convert it into alcohol fuel. 

Harvard Professor Daniel G. Nocera, announced at the University of Chicago, was able to genetically engineered a bacteria that can take CO2 out of the air and convert it into energy. His colleagues have name it the "Bionic Leaf."

It is more efficient than plants. Plants convert sunlight to biomass at about 1% efficiency, instead Nocera's bacteria can produce biomass at a 10.6% and alcohol at 6.4% efficiency. It is ten times more than plants, as they use most of their energy to survive. Alcohol resulting from the process can be burned directly and biomass can be made into fuel.

“Right now we’re making isopropanol, isobutanol, isopentanol,” he said in a lecture to the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.

Nocera had developed an artificial leaf 5 years ago, while he was at MIT. It was  able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, but as the world isn't ready for hydrogen fuel, according to the scientist, the leaf didn't live up to its promise.

He worked with biologists from Harvard Medical School for the last 18 months and they've engineered a bacteria called Raistonia eutropha it consumes hydrogen and CO2 and convert it into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy molecule used by natural organisms.

Building on previous discoveries by Anthony Sinskey, a microbiology professor from MIT, they've been able to insert more genes that help convert the ATP into alcohol and make the bacteria excrete it.

Their report was published in the most recent issue of the journal Science under the name "Water splitting–biosynthetic system with CO2 reduction efficiencies exceeding photosynthesis."

500 liters of atmospheric CO2 could be captured everyday with a one liter reactor full of the bacteria, Nocera said. It can scrub 180 grams of CO2 from the air per kilowatt-hour of electricity.

Despite the success of this project, Nocera argues it won't solve the CO2 problem. "I’m taking CO2 out of the air, you burn it and you put the CO2 back. So it’s carbon neutral. I’m not going to reverse 400 ppm of CO2. But you’re not going to use any more stuff out of the ground, " he said. This could help the preservation of fossil fuels.

This technology has potential as a local renewable energy source and Nocera wants to develop it in India. It would work and have an impact as there are about 300 million people who don't have access to electricity.

 The country's lack of electric grid infrastructure could mean new energy sources would develop without having to compete with an established industry.

Nocera is looking for investors and with his results already published, he hopes to get more people excited about the project and apply it for practical purposes.

"I want them to invest in Indian scientists, in India, and make it in India. So that’s going to be my new model. And we’re going to see if it works. I have a cool discovery, it’s now got to go to scale-up, but I want them to do it."


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