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Home » California, Process, R & D Focus, University/College Programs

Markus Ribbe and Yilin Hu: Brewing Biofuel from Bacteria

Submitted by on August 31, 2017 – 6:01 pmNo Comment

by Wendy Wolfson (University of California Irvine Applied Innovation)  In a high-ceiling room in professor Markus Ribbe’s lab, a giant still emits pungent vapors from fermenting bacteria. Ribbe, chancellor’s professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the UCI School of Biological Sciences, and his colleague and wife Yilin Hu, assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, are brewing fuel. They are harnessing nitrogenase, an enzyme derived from a common soil bacteria, to create hydrocarbons from carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The goal is to produce an affordable, truly renewable biofuel, as well as essential industrial products.

Continued use of fossil fuels is unsustainable because of their steep and growing environmental costs, and for strategic reasons as well. Newer generations of alternative fuels are becoming more efficient and cost-effective to produce, but they still have technical and scale-up issues, as well as their own environmental costs. Currently, the main gating factor hobbling innovation in alternative fuels is the relatively low price of oil, but that will not always be the case.

Ribbe terms his lab’s bacterial fuel factory concept a “fourth generation” solution. The discovery came about quite accidentally. Ribbe, a microbiologist, did his Ph.D. on microbes that can use carbon monoxide as a feedstock. In 2010, his lab was researching the properties of nitrogenase, a catalyst produced by Azotobacter vinelandii, a “completely harmless” common soil bacteria that has the ability to affix nitrogen in the soil to plant roots. 

Ribbe and his students found that this nitrogenase enzyme family could catalyze the reduction of carbon monoxide (CO) or carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce certain hydrocarbons under moderate conditions: normal pressure and ambient temperature—without requiring hydrogen; it can also use waste feedstocks like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to do so.

Currently, most hydrocarbon products for energy or the production of industrial plastics and rubber—including methane, ethylene, propylene, propane and butane—are synthesized via the Fischer-Tropsch process, a series of chemical reactions that converts a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons and requires high temperatures and pressures, and lots of hydrogen to work. Hydrogen is energy-intensive to synthesize, requiring fossil fuels. The Fischer-Tropsch process makes an excessive amount of the greenhouse gas methane as a waste product.  READ MORE

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