Sustainable Energy

Building Microbial Fuel Factories

  • by Kevin Bullis
  • August 25, 2010
  • Grow lights illuminate flasks of photosynthetic microörganisms that produce biofuels.

Viewed from a biofuels perspective, biological plants waste huge amounts of energy: they use sunlight to make cellulose, starch, lignin, and seeds, some of which can then be broken down and converted into fuels. A growing body of research is seeking to genetically engineer organisms to make liquid fuels directly. Organisms optimized in this way could theoretically be an order of magnitude more efficient than technologies that make fuels from biomass.

Joule Unlimited, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, is genetically altering photosynthetic microörganisms so that over their lifetime, they devote only 5 percent of the solar energy they absorb to growing and staying alive. The rest goes to secreting a steady supply of diesel fuel. The company, which is building a pilot plant in Leander, TX, says its process will generate 15 to 25 times as much fuel per acre as technology for making fuels from cellulosic biomass, but that it will take several years to demonstrate at a large scale. Synthetic Genomics, with funding from ExxonMobil that could exceed $300 million, is taking a similar approach, working with algae.

This story is part of our September/October 2010 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

To replace all petroleum with biofuels, however, it might be necessary to genetically engineer organisms that get energy through potentially more efficient mechanisms. And the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is funding 13 projects that are engineering organisms to convert electricity and hydrogen–ideally from renewable sources–into liquid fuels for conventional cars.

Get stories like this before anyone else with First Look.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.