Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists create energy-dense biofuel

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Kevin Yin/Courtesy
The biofuel differs from other types of fuel in that it is more energy dense and efficient, according to Eric Sundstrom, a research scientist at Berkeley Lab.

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For years, scientists have worked to create an energy-dense and eco-friendly fuel, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, researchers have finally created one — biofuel derived from bacteria.

Led by Berkeley Lab senior faculty scientist Jay Keasling, the project was part of a larger consortium with multiple labs. The researchers published a paper portraying their findings Thursday.

“We were able to engineer a soil bacteria called streptomyces to produce a new type of fuel which would be impossible to make with synthetic chemistry,” said UC Berkeley graduate student and researcher Aidan Cowan in an email. “The process is similar to how yeast makes ethanol, another potential fuel.”

Now scientists such as Kevin Yin, a campus graduate student and research assistant, have worked on optimizing the product to allow it to be used in different ways.

The new biofuel is different from other types of fuel because the cyclic molecules bond at strained angles, allowing the molecules to store more energy and making the fuel more energy dense and efficient, according to Eric Sundstrom, a research scientist at Berkeley Lab.

“The challenge was to see if we could develop biofuels that are performance-advantaged relative to current petrochemical fuels,” Sundstrom said. “And (Keasling) realized the potential there to make fields that have really high energy density, which would be beyond anything you could make petrochemical.”

According to lead researcher Pablo Cruz-Morales, the fuel is expected to be used mainly for rockets, but scientists predict it may be adapted for aviation use as well. Sundstrom added it could have uses in the military as well.

However, the fuel is not able to be mass produced yet because not enough has been made to do field tests, according to Yin.

While scientists have not yet been able to develop enough biofuel to make it commercially available, Yin believes the project is still a major achievement in engineering.

“The genome mining approach in our project uses bioinformatic techniques that minimize the amount of engineering or ‘brute force’ needed and naturally get us as close as possible to our desired product,” Yin said in a text message.

Not only is this new biofuel more efficient, it is also more eco-friendly. The biofuel is made from plants, so when burned, the emissions produce carbon dioxide that is then taken in by plants, Cruz-Morales said.

While this new biofuel is both energy-efficient and better for the environment, Cruz-Morales does not believe it will be the only solution to climate change.

“The key is to diversify the solutions,” Cruz-Morales said. “The solutions are not going to come in single molecule or a single solution, it’s going to be a combination.”

Contact Sienna Reinders at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @siennareinders.