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article imageEssential Science: Alternative power from the microbial world

By Tim Sandle     Aug 28, 2017 in Science
From biofuels to batteries, microorganisms provide unique and continual alternative resources for the energy industry. The question is whether they can provide this energy consistently and reliably? Several biotech startups think so.
Researchers from DOE/Sandia National Laboratories have been investigating how to create better biofuels and for this they have turned to a class of bacteria called cyanobacteria, seeing these organisms as key to producing biofuels on a large scale. It is scale-up that has frustrated some of the more promising biofuel research.
Biofuels are a types of fuels, regarded as forms of alternative energy, that are produced through biological processes. This could be, for example, from agriculture and anaerobic digestion to develop a biomass. These processes are often reliant upon microorganisms to breakdown matter. Fuels produced in this way, such as bio-ethanol, contrast to fuels produced by geological processes (the fossil fuels).
E-Fuel Home Ethanol Product
A machine similar in appearance to this will allow people to make ethanol from the dregs of beer to fuel cars.
E-Fuel Product Page
Businesses are interested in biofuels to lower costs and the primary interest is with biofuels for transport. With costs, ethanol has about half the energy per mass of gasoline, which means it takes twice as much ethanol to get the same energy. This has sparked interest from major oil companies to invest in biofuels, a direction that was led by Chevron which was the first to invest in bio-ethanol production. There are also many smaller-scale startups investing in developing biofuels or with growing suitable material for biomass, such algae farms.
The smaller companies can utilize advances in biofuel technology to create business-to-business links. An example of this is Mutoba Ngoma, a Zambian entrepreneur who founded Tapera Industries, based in Lusaka, to create vegetable oil that is sold to specialist processing plants to create biodiesel. Such a plant might be run by John Fox, who is the CEO of New York-based biodiesel manufacturer Innovation Fuels. Fox goes onto provide manufacturing plants with biodiesel that is priced lower than petroleum-based diesel.
Celtic Renewables Ltd used a Ford Focus for the first test drive using biobutanol.
Celtic Renewables Ltd used a Ford Focus for the first test drive using biobutanol.
Celtic Renewables Ltd
The most widely used liquid biofuels for transport are ethanol and biodiesel (biodiesel is a renewable and clean-burning type of diesel that is made from vegetable oils). As well as cost-cutting, biofuels can help to address environmental impact. For example, a study from NASA has shown that using biofuels to help power jet engines would reduce particle emissions in aircraft exhaust by as much as 50 to 70 percent. For this reason NASA has the goal of demonstrating biofuels on their proposed supersonic X-plane.
Biofuels have supporters and detractors. To some biofuels represent a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels; to others there is concern with the social and environmental issues, such as land that could be used for food production being sacrificed for growing crops to be used as biofuels (land dispossession). There are also concerns about the types of crops used for biofuels and the impact certain plant species are having on ground level ozone.
These concerns aside, biofuels continue to be big business, and research continues to find ways to improve efficiency. One example comes from a U.S. Bay Area company that has patented a group of three single-celled, algae-like bacteria. When these organisms are grown together they produce high quantities of sugar. This sugar is optimal for generating biofuels. The company is called HelioBioSys Inc, and the research has been aided by scientists working for DOE/Sandia National Laboratories.
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii  genetically modified to show different colors.
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, genetically modified to show different colors.
Beth Rasala
While many producers of biomass turn to algae, a standard algae operation might grow 1 gram of biomass per liter (or 0.04 ounces per quarter gallon); whereas the use of cyanobacteria leads to 4 to 7 grams of sugar being produced per liter of biomass (or 0.25 ounces per quarter gallon). This is a big improvement of 700 percent, as achieved by HelioBioSys’ operations.
Cyanobacteria that process food by means of photosynthesis
Cyanobacteria that process food by means of photosynthesis
Specious Reasons
It also stands that filtering sugar from water is a simple and lower cost process compared with extracting lipids from algae mass. From here sugar is relatively easy to convert into fuel. It also stands that, unlike the farming of algae, cyanobacteria do not require additional fertilizer, which also lowers production costs.
Microcystis algae grow in a large bloom in the Copco Reservoir on the Klamath River  posing health r...
Microcystis algae grow in a large bloom in the Copco Reservoir on the Klamath River, posing health risks to people, pets and wildlife.
University of Oregon
The growing biofuel sector provides opportunities for startup companies to improve technologies and engage in business-to-business activities.
Essential Science
An example of a smart inhaler  as imagined by Teva Pharmaceuticals.
An example of a smart inhaler, as imagined by Teva Pharmaceuticals.
File photo: Teva pharmaceuticals
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week various innovations in digital health were presented, including the factors that can sometimes lead to poorly designed devices and apps. The previous week an interesting new map was presented. The map shows over 760 genetic dependencies across multiple cancers. The map suggests new opportunities for developing innovative cancer treatments for scientists and start-up biotech.
More about Microbes, Energy, Power, Alternative energy, Biofuels
 
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