Bypassing solar cells to produce butanol with microorganisms, carbon dioxide and solar energy

Pia Lindberg, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemistry Ångström Laboratory.

Soon we will be able to replace fossil fuels with a carbon-neutral product created from solar energy, carbon dioxide and water. Researchers at Uppsala University have successfully produced microorganisms that can efficiently produce the alcohol butanol using carbon dioxide and solar energy, without needing to use solar cells.

This has been presented in a new study published in the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science.

We have systematically designed and created a series of modified cyanobacteria that gradually produced increasing quantities of butanol in direct processes. When the best cells are used in long-term laboratory experiments, we see levels of production that exceed levels that have been reported in existing articles. Furthermore, it is comparable with indirect processes where bacteria are fed with sugar, says Pia Lindberg, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemistry Ångström Laboratory, Uppsala University.

The knowledge and ability to modify cyanobacteria so they can produce a variety of chemicals from carbon dioxide and solar energy is emerging in parallel with advances in technology, synthetic biology, genetically changing them. Through a combination of technical development, systematic methods and the discovery that as more product removed from the cyanobacteria, the more butanol is formed, the study shows the way forward for realising the concept.

Possible to achieve higher production

We already know it is possible to produce butanol using this process (proof-of-concept). What researchers have now been able to show is that it is possible to achieve significantly higher production, so high that it becomes possible to use in production. In practical terms, butanol can be used in the automotive industry as both an environmentally friendly vehicle fuel – fourth generation biofuel – and as an environmentally friendly component of rubber for tyres. In both cases, fossil fuels are replaced by a carbon-neutral product created from solar energy, carbon dioxide and water.

Even larger industries, in all trades, that currently produce high greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide will be able to use the process with cyanobacteria to bind carbon dioxide and consequently significantly reduce their emissions.

Microscopic cyanobacteria are the most efficient photosynthetic organisms on earth. In this study, we utilise their ability to efficiently capture the sun’s energy and bind to carbon dioxide in the air, alongside with all the tools we have to modify cyanobacteria to produce desirable products. The results show that a direct production of carbon-neutral chemicals and fuels from solar energy will be a possibility in the future, explains Peter Lindblad, Professor at the Department of Chemistry Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University who is leading the project.

Learn more: Solar energy becomes biofuel without solar cells


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Cost-Saving Measure to Upgrade Ethanol to Butanol — A Better Alternative to Gasoline

Ethanol actually is a poor alternative fuel,” Wass said. “Butanol is much better.

Scientists today reported a discovery that could speed an emerging effort to replace ethanol in gasoline with a substantially better fuel additive called butanol, which some experts regard as “the gasoline of the future.” Their report on this discovery, which holds potential to reduce the costs of converting ethanol factories to production of butanol, came at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

Duncan Wass explained that ethanol has become a leading biofuel — millions of gallons added to gasoline around the country each year — despite several disadvantages. Ethanol, for instance, has a lower energy content per gallon than gasoline, which can reduce fuel mileage. Ethanol also has a corrosive effect on car engines and can’t easily be used in amounts higher than 10-15 percent.

“Ethanol actually is a poor alternative fuel,” Wass said. “Butanol is much better. It contains about 30 percent more energy per gallon than ethanol, is easier to handle and more of it can be blended into each gallon of gasoline. In fact, you could fuel a car on pure butanol and it would run absolutely fine. That’s the basis for butanol’s emerging reputation as ‘the gasoline of the future.’”

Efforts already have begun to convert some ethanol factories in the Corn Belt to production of butanol, Wass explained. Those factories currently process corn into alcohol with the same fermentation technology used to make beer and beverage alcohol. Converting those factories to ferment corn into butanol would require costly modifications, estimated at $10 million-$15 million for a typical plant.

Wass and his group at the University of Bristol in the U.K. are reporting the discovery of a new family of catalysts that could enable those factories to continue producing ethanol, with the ethanol then converted into butanol. With the catalysts, ethanol factories would require less retrofitting to produce butanol. Catalysts speed up chemical reactions by lowering the amount of energy needed need to jumpstart reactions. They enable production of hundreds of everyday products, and many of the proteins that sustain life are catalysts called enzymes.

Their report was part of a symposium on renewable fuels and catalysts. Abstracts of other presentations appear below.

“These new catalysts are much better than any previously in existence,” Wass said. “There’s a long way to go before they are commercialized, but we are reporting a fundamental advance in that direction. Quite simply, they are the world’s best catalysts for making the gasoline of the future.”

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New process doubles production of alternative fuel while slashing costs

A new discovery should make the alternative fuel butanol more attractive to the biofuel industry.

University of Illinois scientist Hao Feng has found a way around the bottleneck that has frustrated producers in the past and could significantly reduce the cost of the energy involved in making it as well.

“The first challenge in butanol production is that at a certain concentration the fuel being created becomes toxic to the organism used to make it (Clostridium pasteurianum and other strains), and that toxicity limits the amount of fuel that can be made in one batch. The second issue is the high energy cost of removing butanol from the fermentation broth at the high concentrations used by the industry. We have solved both problems,” he said.

In the study, funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute, Feng’s team successfully tested the use of a non-ionic surfactant, or co-polymer, to create small structures that capture and hold the butanol molecules.

“This keeps the amount of butanol in the fermentation broth low so it doesn’t kill the organism and we can continue to produce it,” he said.

This process, called extractive fermentation, increases the amount of butanol produced during fermentation by 100 percent or more.

But that’s only the beginning. Feng’s group then makes use of one of the polymer’s properties—its sensitivity to temperature. When the fermentation process is finished, the scientists heat the solution until a cloud appears and two layers form.

“We use a process called cloud point separation,” he said. “Two phases form, with the second facing the polymer-rich phase. When we remove the second phase, we can recover the butanol, achieving a three- to fourfold reduction in energy use there because we don’t have to remove as much water as in traditional fermentation.”

A bonus is that the co-polymers can be recycled and can be reused at least three times after butanol is extracted with little effect on phase separation behavior and butanol enrichment ability. After the first recovery, the volume of butanol recovered is slightly lower but is still at a high concentration, he said.

According to Feng, alternative fuel manufacturers may want to take another look at butanol because it has a number of attractive qualities. Butanol has a 30 percent higher energy content than ethanol, lower vapor pressure, and is less volatile, less flammable, and mixes well with gasoline, he noted.

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via University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

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Chemicals and Biofuel from Wood Biomass

Butanol is particularly suited as a transport fuel

A method developed at Aalto University in Finland makes it possible to use microbes to produce butanol suitable for biofuel and other industrial chemicals from wood biomass.

Butanol is particularly suited as a transport fuel because it is not water soluble and has higher energy content than ethanol.

Most commonly used raw materials in butanol production have so far been starch and cane sugar. In contrast to this, the starting point in the Aalto University study was to use only lignocellulose, otherwise known as wood biomass, which does not compete with food production.

Another new breakthrough in the study is to successfully combine modern pulp — and biotechnology. Finland’s advanced forest industry provides particularly good opportunities to develop this type of bioprocesses.

Wood biomass is made up of three primary substances: cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Of these three, cellulose and hemicellulose can be used as a source of nutrition for microbes in bioprocesses. Along with cellulose, the Kraft process that is currently used in pulping produces black liquor, which can already be used as a source of energy. It is not, however, suitable for microbes. In the study, the pulping process was altered so that, in addition to cellulose, the other sugars remain unharmed and can therefore be used as raw material for microbes.

When wood biomass is boiled in a mixture of water, alcohol and sulphur dioxide, all parts of the wood — cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin — are separated into clean fractions. The cellulose can be used to make paper, nanocellulose or other products, while the hemicellulose is efficient microbe raw material for chemical production. Thus, the advantage of this new process is that no parts of the wood sugar are wasted.

In accordance with EU requirements, all fuel must contain 10 per cent biofuel by 2020. A clear benefit of butanol is that a significantly large percentage — more than 20 per cent of butanol, can be added to fuel without having to make any changes to existing combustion engines. The nitrogen and carbon emissions from a fuel mix including more than 20 per cent butanol are significantly lower than with fossil fuels. For example, the incomplete combustion of ethanol in an engine produces volatile compounds that increase odour nuisances in the environment. Estimates indicate that combining a butanol and pulp plant into a modern biorefinery would provide significant synergy benefits in terms of energy use and biofuel production.

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Cars Could Run On Recycled Newspaper

August 30, 2005 edition

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Here’s one way that old-fashioned newsprint beats the Internet.

Tulane University scientists have discovered a novel bacterial strain, dubbed “TU-103,” that can use paper to produce butanol, a biofuel that can serve as a substitute for gasoline. They are currently experimenting with old editions of the Times Picayune, New Orleans’ venerable daily newspaper, with great success.

TU-103 is the first bacterial strain from nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose, an organic compound.

“Cellulose is found in all green plants, and is the most abundant organic material on earth, and converting it into butanol is the dream of many,” said Harshad Velankar, a postdoctoral fellow in David Mullin’s lab in Tulane’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. “In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year.”

Mullin’s lab first identified TU-103 in animal droppings, cultivated it and developed a method for using it to produce butanol. A patent is pending on the process.

“Most important about this discovery is TU-103’s ability to produce butanol directly from cellulose,” explained Mullin.

He added that TU-103 is the only known butanol-producing clostridial strain that can grow and produce butanol in the presence of oxygen, which kills other butanol-producing bacteria. Having to produce butanol in an oxygen-free space increases the costs of production.

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