Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

November 5, 2009

Host: Ted Simons

Fuel from Bacteria

  • Arizona State University research Willem Vermaas has received a $5.2 million grant to work on extracting fatty acids from bacteria. Those fatty acids can then be used to make a variety of fuels. Professor Vermaas will talk about his research.
  • Willem Vermaas - Researcher,Arizona State University

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Filling up your fuel tank may one day -- making fuel from fatty acids harvested from photosynthetic bacterium. Here to help us make sense of -- thank you for joining us, we appreciate it. Let's talk about this. Bacterium, fatty I hads producing -- fatty acids produces biofuel. How?

Willem Vermaas: You make use of the photosynthesis process that has led to all of the fossil fuels in the world that is still responsible for all the food that we eat, essentially, and you're using that natural photosynthesis process, absorbing light, using CO2 to be converted into organic compounds. You're then converting those organic compounds into fatty acids which have secreted from the bacteria. So you're taking light energy, you take CO2, and you convert it into fatty acids that get converted -- that get secreted out of the bacteria. And those are harvested and then that can get in a refinery process to provide diesel, jet fuel. Gasoline, any of those compounds.

Ted Simons: This bacterium, I've read your stuff and you say it's like the granddaddy of all plants. This stuff is everywhere, right?

Willem Vermaas: Yes, it's one the very first photosynthetic organisms that evolved, according to most scientists and what these are bacteria that then went into what are now plant cells and they became the chloroplasts. The engine of plants. So you can view these as little chloroplasts, that are very efficient in photosynthesis and don't have all of the other stuff that needs to be made.

Ted Simons: Indeed, the leaves and stems and these things. Very efficient, but you need to genetically tinker with them to make them more efficient for this purpose, correct?

Willem Vermaas: Correct.

Ted Simons: How much is involved there?

Willem Vermaas: It's a matter of cutting out a few genes that code for proteins that make the surface of the cell so that it's more easy to secrete fatty acids from the cells. You need to put more of the fixed CO2 into fatty acids so that means you shouldn't be making as much sugar as they usually do, so you need to do something to the carbon pathways, the metabolic pathways, to make fatty acids rather than other materials.

Ted Simons: So you've got the bacterium and then the fatty acids that come from that and then you convert the fatty acids to some sort of fuel that will hopefully get us to something different than where we are now. The harvesting -- let's start with the fatty acids, what's involved here?

Willem Vermaas: What you make is essentially soap scum. Fatty acids, think of it as soap, right? That's what the nature of soap is. Primarily. So you get very ugly layer on top it that you need to take off without fouling up everything around it. So our idea, and that means -- that needs to be researched in a little more detail, is to have an organic phase on top of the water in which the fatty acids diffuse, so still a bit of not only a molecular engineering effort but a chemical engineering effort to take the fatty acids, and then isolate them and then process them into fuel.

Ted Simons: How are they processed into fuel? What's that process -- what's involved there?

Willem Vermaas: So from fatty acids to fuel, it is a process called [inaudible] and it's been developed by our collaborators at North Carolina state university. And what that involves is first, you take off the ends, the charged ends from the fatty acids. And what you end up with is along carbon -- a long carbon chain and that you further process to make shorter carbon chains out of it. Cycle it -- molecules and that's a process that they have developed over the past couple of years. That will mostly take place in North Carolina.

Ted Simons: Does it take a big building? A lot of stuff?

Willem Vermaas: Depends on the scale.

Ted Simons: Right.

Willem Vermaas: Right now, we are at the level that we are at the proven concept. We now need to optimize and then when it is optimized it will eventually be scaled up. The purpose of the current grant is -- which is for two years, is to do that optimization process and to show companies, yeah, we can actually do it. And then in the private sector, it can be further scaled up.

Ted Simons: We've heard about algae, and here at Arizona State University, there's a lot of research being done with algae. Compare and contrast this with the idea of algae being biofuel.

Willem Vermaas: Algae will use the same photosynthesis process but they make initially sugars and then in a process of -- well, that's induced by stresses you put on the algaes, they get converted into lipids. So you have a CO2 to sugar to lipids process and the lipids usually stays inside the cells and 30-40% of the dry weight of the cell. The rest is other material. Then what you have to do is break on the algae and isolate the lipids, convert those into fuel, and whatever you do with the rest of the algae, that's a big question. It has value, but needs to be refined. In this case, in our case, what we're doing is, say, we don't really want a lot of biomass growth. We don't want to have a huge amount of biomass that is continuing to grow. We have a lot of biomass that is continuing to produce fatty acids. In that way, much more efficient. In converting solar energy into your product. You don't need to have the algae grow all of that biomass.

Ted Simons: Quickly, not much time: Can this solve this country's fuel needs?

Willem Vermaas: In principle, yes. The big question is, at what cost? So it will depend pretty much on what the engineering people can come up with to minimize the production costs of the cyan bacteria production system.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

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