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Fossil fuel alternative? Scientists trick E. coli bacteria into producing propane

Fossil fuel alternative? Scientists trick E. coli bacteria into producing propane
Science took a big step towards commercially generated clean renewable fuel by confusing gut bacteria E.coli into producing propane instead of cell membranes. The ultimate goal is to convert solar energy into a fossil fuel substitute.

"Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away," Patrik Jones of the department of life sciences at Imperial College London said of the research, conducted jointly with the University of Turku in Finland.

The results were published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

Although conclusive results are some way off, a 5-10 year possible time frame ahead of commercial production is a very optimistic figure, given the benefits.

The next stop is to make the process low-cost and economically sustainable.

In future, they hope to utilize the propane-production synthesis they came up with to be used in photosynthetic bacteria, in order to convert solar energy into chemical fuel.

The wonder of propane is that it’s an inherently clean fuel owing to its lower carbon content. There is also an existing global market for it and it is a by-product arising out of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. And lastly, it’s easy to work with because propane is a gas that can easily be liquefied.

In fact, it makes up the majority of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), one of the most used forms of fuel on Earth, powering everything from heavy machinery to household appliances. Because natural gas and refined petrol are both finite, a clean and renewable propane extraction is a win-win substitute.

"Fossil fuels are a finite resource and we are going to have to come up with new ways to meet increasing energy demands," Jones said in a statement. And unlike the current favorite – algae, which is more expensive and difficult to process and harvest currently, propane “can be separated from the natural process with minimal energy and it will be compatible with the existing infrastructure for easy use.”

Scientists were challenged with the problem of cheap propane production and in E.coli bacteria they have found the ideal way. They interrupted the bacteria’s natural process of creating cell membranes out of fatty acids by using three different enzymes with separate functions.

By doing this, especially by employing the new aldehyde-deformylating oxygenase (ADO) enzyme that naturally creates hydrocarbons, they fooled the bacteria into making propane instead.

The role of ADO was enhanced with the use of electrons, enabling the enzyme to greatly boost its catalytic capability, leading to the production of propane.

Although the levels they managed were one thousand times less than those needed for commercial purposes, the team believes it’s only a matter of refining the process now.

“At the moment, we don’t have a full grasp of exactly how the fuel molecules are made, so we are now trying to find out exactly how this process unfolds. I hope that over the next 5-10 years we will be able to achieve commercially viable processes that will sustainably fuel our energy demands.”