Fragrant New Biofuel
A class of chemical compounds best known today for fragrance and flavor may one day provide the clean, green and renewable fuel with which truck and auto drivers fill their tanks. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to generate significant quantities of methyl ketone compounds from glucose. In subsequent tests, these methyl ketones yielded high cetane numbers — a diesel fuel rating comparable to the octane number for gasoline — making them strong candidates for the production of advanced biofuels.
“Our findings add to the list of naturally occurring chemical compounds that could serve as biofuels, which means more flexibility and options for the biofuels industry,” says Harry Beller, a JBEI microbiologist who led this study. “We’re especially encouraged by our finding that it is possible to increase the methyl ketone titer production of E. coli more than 4,000-fold with a relatively small number of genetic modifications.”
Beller directs the Biofuels Pathways department for JBEI’s Fuels Synthesis Division, and also is a senior scientist with the Earth Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). He is the corresponding author of a paper describing this work titled “Engineering of Bacterial Methyl Ketone Synthesis for Biofuels,” which was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Co-authoring this paper were Ee-Been Goh, who is the first author on the paper, plus Edward Baidoo and Jay Keasling.
Advanced biofuels — liquid transportation fuels derived from the cellulosic biomass of perennial grasses and other non-food plants, as well as from agricultural waste — are highly touted as potential replacements for gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. Equally touted is the synthesis of these fuels through microbes that digest the biomass and convert its sugars into fuel molecules. At JBEI, researchers are focusing on developing advanced biofuels that can be used in today’s engines and distribution infrastructures. In previous research, Beller and his colleagues engineered E. coli with special enzymes to synthesize from fatty acids long-chain alkene hydrocarbons that can be turned into diesel fuel. Fatty acids are the energy-rich molecules in bacterial and plant cells that have been dubbed nature’s petroleum.
“In those studies, we noticed that bacteria engineered to produce unnaturally high levels of fatty acids also produced some methyl ketones,” Beller says. “When we tested the cetane numbers of these ketones and saw that they were quite favorable, we were prompted to look more closely at developing methyl ketones as biofuels.”
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