Intelligent Energy

Bioengineering e.coli to turn seaweed into fuel

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Scientists at Bio Architecture Lab tinkered with the superbug e.coli and turned it into a microbe that can turn the sugar in seaweed into fuel, and maybe even renewable chemicals.

Scientists with the U.S. biotech company Bio Architecture Lab have genetically engineered a strain of the e.coli bacteria to extract the sugars in seaweed and convert them into renewable fuels, chemicals, possibly green plastics. BAL's findings are detailed in today's issue of Science magazine.

BAL, which was spun out of the University of Washington, has worked for several years to bioengineer a microbe that could turn macroalgae into ethanol and renewable chemicals at a commercial scale. Despite its low-profile, the company has attracted grant money via the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and some big name partners including DuPont and Norwegian oil giant Statoil.

Last month, BAL started construction on a pilot facility in Chile to develop its technology. The facility, which will demonstrate the entire process from seaweed farming to biofuel production, is expected to be operational late this year.

How it works

Scientists at BAL genetically altered a strain of Escherichia coli -- the stomach bacteria that has made headlines for contaminating food in recent years -- so it could convert sugars found in an edible kelp into fuel. About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are sugars, and more than half of those are locked in a single sugar -- alginate, CEO Daniel Trunfio, a former Shell executive, said in a statement yesterday.  The crux was bioengineering the microbe so it could break down alginate.

Others have tinkered with using e.coli to make fuel.  Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute have engineered the first strains of e.coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. But unlike switchgrass and other woody biomass, seaweed doesn't have lignin, which is difficult to break down into sugar. Seaweed also doesn't require arable land or freshwater to grow.

Of course, economics is now the remaining challenge. BAL has four seaweed farms in Chile and claims it's had "great success" in growing the feestock at economically viable production yields. However, the company hasn't revealed any cost figures, and most likely won't until the demonstration facility has been up and running for some time.

BAL has one advantage that could help spread out the risk and diversify its potential revenue stream. The bioengineered microbe has the potential to turn the seaweed into products other than ethanol, including renewable chemicals.

Photo: NOAA; BAL

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure