Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have made a breakthrough in the production of biofuels, using synthetic biology to make the next generation of bio-based jet fuels from seawater.
The researchers, who are led by Professor Nigel Scrutton, director of the Manchester Institute (MIB) and supported by US-based international maritime research agency Office of Naval Research Global (ONR), is using synthetic biology to identify a more efficient method of producing biofuel.
They have discovered that the bacteria species Halomonas, which grows in seawater, provides a viable microbial chassis that can be engineering to create high-value compounds. This means that products like bio-based jet fuel could be made more economically using production methods similar to those used in the brewery industry.
The breakthrough behind this new method is the ability to re-engineer the microbe’s genome to change its metabolism and create different types of high-value chemical compounds, such as renewable fuel.
“Effective biofuels strategies require the economic production of fuels derived from a robust microbial host on a very large scale – usually cultivated on renewable waste biomass or industrial waste streams – but also with minimal downstream processing and avoids use of fresh water,” explained Scrutton. “With Halomonas these requirements can be met, so minimising capital and operational costs in the production of these next generation biofuels.”
The research could have considerable implications for the wider biofuels industry, as Dr Kirk Malone, director of commercialisation at MIB, explained: “In the case of the jet fuel intermediates we are bio-producing, they are chemically identical to petrochemical derived molecules, and will be able to ‘drop-in’ to processes developed at China Lake.”
Malone added that bio-production in seawater would avoid the ethical concerns surrounding biofuels production of the fuel vs food debate.
Patrick Rose, science director for ONR Global in London, added: “It is possible to replicate the exact same molecules we harvest from crops to make high value compounds by exploiting this biological process by taking the genes out of the plant and inserting the information into bacteria. With this engineering feat, there is no dependence on environmental factors and an increased level of reliability in the product.”
The platform developed by the University of Manchester is unique in that the bacteria grow in seawater. The management of the system and its durability also promises a long life span for continuous production.
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