As part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Electrofuels program, researchers have developed a method for using these microorganisms to create transportation fuels that could be over 10 times more efficient than the prevailing methods of biofuel production.
“Electrofuels bypass photosynthesis altogether by utilizing microorganisms that are self-reliant and don’t need solar energy to grow or produce biofuels. These microorganisms can directly use energy from electricity and chemical compounds like hydrogen to produce liquid fuels from carbon dioxide (CO2). Because these microorganisms can directly use these energy sources, the overall efficiency of the fuel-creation process is higher than current biofuel production methods that rely on the more passive photosynthesis process. Scientists can also genetically modify the microorganisms to further improve the efficiency of energy conversion to liquid fuels. And, because Electrofuels don’t use photosynthesis, they don’t require the prime agricultural land or water resources of current biofuels.” – ARPA-E
The microbes used for electrofuels are derived from bacteria native to places where photosynthesis doesn’t occur, and instead of using sunlight for energy production, they take up electrons from minerals in the surrounding soil or water. The appropriate genes from these microbes are bioengineered into other, more easily cultivated microbes, which are then grown in a vat and fed carbon dioxide and an electric current, and in turn produce a liquid fuel alternative, butanol.
According to National Geographic, even the best biofuel and energy crops can only produce about 10 tons of dry biomass each year, and when compared to the amount of solar radiation that falls on that acreage over the course of a year, the biofuel plants growing there are only converting less than one percent of it to fuel energy.
Because electrofuels don’t require any arable farmland, or tractors, fertilizer, or irrigation water to grow, and have a minimal environmental impact, production could be set up anywhere with a source of electricity. And while the technology is still in its infancy, a long way from commercial application, the teams working toward sustainable electrofuels are pursuing the possibility of scaling it up to larger production volumes while achieving cost-competitiveness.
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