Newly Engineered Microorganism Could Create Bio-Fuels from Carbon Dioxide

First Posted: Mar 27, 2013 08:15 AM EDT

What if we could use the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to create fuel? It could solve the global energy crisis while at the same time ridding us of those pesky greenhouse gases that are causing our climate to change. Researchers at the University of Georgia may have taken a step to accomplishing just that. They've found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in our atmosphere into useful industrial products.

So how exactly have they accomplished this? The researchers essentially created a microorganism that absorbs carbon dioxide and generates something useful--exactly what plants do normally. During the process of photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plants then use to grow. These sugars can then be fermented into fuels like ethanol, but it's been proven extremely difficult to extract the sugars which are locked inside the plant's complex cell walls.

This new microorganism, though, gives researchers a way to refine and hone this process. Named Pyrococcus furiosus, or "rushing fireball," the microorganism thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents, located deep beneath the water's surface. By manipulating this organism's genetic material, the researchers were able to create a strain of P. furiosus that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.

The researchers weren't quite done yet, though. The next step was to use hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the new microorganism that incorporates carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid. This acid is a common industrial chemical that's used to make acrylics and many other products.

This new finding could have enormous potential for creating bio-fuels. The researchers could potentially create other strains of P. furiosus that generate host of other useful industrial products--including fuel from carbon dioxide. In addition, the fuel created through the process would release the same amount of carbon dioxide used to create it, making it carbon neutral.

"This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels," said Michael Adams, one of the researchers, in a press release. "In the future, we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales."

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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