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Bacteria may be the answer to Britain’s fuel crisis. This is according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which a strain of bacteria has been created that can produce fuel. A strand of E. coli bacteria has been genetically modified by researchers at the University of Exeter, and now it can covert convert sugar into a type of oil that is almost identical to conventional diesel.
The team of researchers notes that this synthetic fuel could be a viable alternative to the fossil fuel, if it is possible to scale up the process. According to Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, ‘Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel. The idea is that car manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn’t even notice the difference – it would just become another part of the fuel production chain.’
The European Union has set a target for biofuels to make up 10% of the fuels used in the transport sector by 2020, in order to improve Europe’s environmental wellness. However, the problem is that most forms of biodiesel and bioethanol are currently incompatible with modern engines. Before most of these crop-based fuels can be used in most engines, fractions of the substances (between 5-10%) need to be blended with petroleum. So how is the modified E. coli bacteria-produced fuel any different?
Professor Love explained, ‘What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required. They are bio-fossil-fuels if you like.’ Funded by the oil company Shell and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the researchers used a strain of E. coli that usually takes in sugar and then turns it into fat, and used synthetic biology to make the bacteria to produce synthetic fuel molecules instead, albeit not in great quantities.
Professor Love said that 100 litres of bacteria would be needed to produce a single teaspoon of the fuel, noting, ‘Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production. We’ve got a timeframe of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it.’ The researchers also hope to find other products that the bacteria can convert into fuel, such as human or animal waste.