News / Science & Technology

Scientists Coax Microbe to Produce Biofuel from CO2

Pyrococcus furiosus (Henry Aldrich, furiosus (Henry Aldrich,
Pyrococcus furiosus (Henry Aldrich,
Pyrococcus furiosus (Henry Aldrich,
Jessica Berman
Scientists say they have found a way to convert carbon dioxide or CO2 - a greenhouse gas that’s a primary driver of global warming - directly into a biofuel that might someday provide an alternative to climate-changing fossil fuels. Researchers say the conversion relies on an unusual microbe.

The microorganism - a bacterium named Pyrococcus furiosus or “rushing fireball” - was discovered in 1986 on the Mediterranean Sea floor off southern Italy, feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated, acidic ocean waters surrounding undersea volcanic vents.  The find surprised scientists because at the time, no one knew that living organisms could thrive in the dark,100-plus-degree Celsius waters.

Researcher Michael Adams and colleagues at the University of Georgia in Athens, along with scientists at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, were intrigued by the bacterium's chemical processing ability.  They genetically modified it so the microbe could feed directly on carbon dioxide gas, and do so at much lower temperatures than its original sea-floor habitat.

Next, researchers added hydrogen gas as an energy source and made further genetic modifications to the microbe that allowed it to generate butanol, a biofuel that burns much like a conventional fossil fuel.
Adams says biofuel production from the marine microbes eliminates the step of extracting such fuel from plants, such as corn and sugar cane. These plants use sunlight to produce sugars, which must then be fermented into ethanol.
“When we say we’re sort of cutting out the middle man, here we’re converting CO2 or carbon dioxide directly into biofuel," said Adams. "But you still need a source of energy.  As I said the plant uses light.  Our source of energy is hydrogen gas.”

The main source of hydrogen is natural gas, another fossil fuel. But the technology, according to Adams, would be carbon neutral in terms of its environmental impact.

“We would take CO2 from the atmosphere, make biofuel which would then be used and converted back to CO2," he said. "But again the caveat is that we are using hydrogen as an energy source and that energy source has to come from somewhere. And as I say at this point in time, the best source of hydrogen would be natural gas.”

Adams believes the microbe-generated butanol has the potential to replace carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels such as oil, gasoline and coal.

He envisions harvesting vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and processing it along with hydrogen in large reactor systems to produce enough butanol for large-scale energy use.

Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.  An article describing the microbial conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuel is published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs