South Carolina’s three research universities are working with microbes to create a new type of fuel that could eventually replace ethanol and even gasoline.
Clemson University chemistry professor Steve Creager and microbiology professor Mike Henson are leading the project to create a possible new alternative fuel for cars by using microorganisms. Henson explains how it works.
Microorganisms grow on carbon sources like glucose or other sugars. When they use those sugars, they make new microogranisms. They also produce end products, like ethanol and butanol.
Creager says it’s similar to how oil is created naturally.
Microorganisms, when they decompose, eventually make petroleum. That’s where it all came from, trees and things like that decaying. But that process takes millions of years for it to decay down to that kind of a material. This is something produced at… an earlier stage.
The scientists plan to speed up the process by stimulating the microbes with electricity. They hope to find which strains are best able to convert carbon dioxide into butanol under the right conditions.
Butanol is more efficient for cars than ethanol and contains about 90 percent of the energy content of gasoline. It also does not corrode steel pipes and storage tanks used by the oil industry to transport fuel, as ethanol does.
Creager said he found the project “fascinating.” He said it is a good way to combine the expertise of researchers from different areas– in this case, microbiology and chemistry– to develop a new field of study.
The project also includes USC ecologist Sean Norman and MUSC researcher Harold May.
The grants come from the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which was created in 2007 to find fuel sources in synthetic and existing organisms.
Henson said he hopes the research will successfully lead to less dependence on oil in the future.
This is a renewable fuel. It gives us the opportunity to take something as simple as carbon dioxide and convert it to a fuel that, when used in an engine, will be converted back to carbon dioxide. Therefore, we can continue to recycle that carbon dioxide.
Creager works at Clemson’s Advanced Materials Research Park near Pendleton. Henson’s work is done on the school’s main campus.