Solar Panels & Microorganisms Team Up to Make Gas


New research from UCLA might just lead to the fuels of tomorrow. Researchers from the university have managed to make liquid fuel from nothing but solar energy, carbon dioxide, and some genetically modified microorganisms. Think of it as a form of artificial photosynthesis.

The research team stuck the modified bacteria into a bioreactor and pumped in carbon dioxide. Then they hooked them up to the electricity from a solar cell. The little critters then pumped out isobutanol, a biofuel that could one day serve as an alternative to gasoline.

This research runs parallel to many other projects trying to get microorganisms to produce fuel, but it stands apart in its efficiency. Systems that rely solely on biology to generate fuel, using actual honest-to-god photosynthesis as an energy source, just aren’t as good at making fuel. As said James Liao of UCLA, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering “this method could be more efficient than the biological system.”

The UCLA team is now working on scaling up production, now that they have proved the technology feasible. But before you go and order an isobutanol-powered car, remember: so far, bacterially-produced biofuels have yet to become commercially viable. This isn’t the first time that bacteria have been used to make fuel. And even though this is one of the first times that the setup didn’t need special feed, like sugar or or corn pulp, these organisms still have a fairly fatal flaw: they were designed to produce fuel, not survive.

Check any petri dish with two competing colonies. The colony better suited to surviving ends up surviving and the other one dies out. In this case the biofuel-producing bacteria is the species less suited to survive. So as soon as contamination happens (which it will, unless very expensive precautions are taken) the end of the colony will be clear.

But hey, who knows. Maybe this is a bacterial fuel source that will be commercially viable.