MIT Scientists Are Bioengineering Bacteria To Turn CO2 Into Fuel


Researchers at Massachusetts’ Institute of Technology are seemingly well on their way to finding a solution to reduce CO2 emissions, all the while producing a chemical compound known as isobutanol which can used as a direct fuel replacement without modification.

In utilising the natural tendencies of a soil bacteria known as Ralstonia eutropha – which, when ‘stressed’ will stop growing and resort to “carbon-storage mode”, essentially storing away food for later as a polymer – scientists at MIT have shown it is possible through bioengineering the microbe to essentially ‘persuade’ it to produce branch-chained alcohols, rather than plastics, as a waste product.

As Christopher Brigham, research scientist in MIT’s biology department and co-author of the research paper, explains; “[The bacteria] takes whatever carbon is available to, and stores it in the form of a polymer, which is similar in its properties to a lot of petroleum-based plastics.” It is in altering the bacteria's genetic properties whereby the researchers leading the work are able to redirect the microbe to produce isobutanol, which could be used as a substitute for common gasoline without further modification.

Tests so far have seen the MIT team able to successfully produce isobutanol using fructose as a carbon source, though it is hoped further development - and more tinkering with the microbe itself – might see the carbon source switched to carbon dioxide, so that fuel could eventually be produced out of emissions alone.

What's more, the way in which the bacteria stores the isobutanol in the fluid surrounding it means the fuel can be filtered easily without stopping the production process, further lending reaffirming the belief that the process could eventually be used to produce a steady stream of re-purposed fuel. The potential benefit of which is quite apparent, solving two problems at once; one a new source for fuel, and second potentially proving capable in lowering our CO2 emissions.

Richard Birkett