Microbes directly convert fiber into fuel

Butanol is a promising next-generation biofuel that contains more energy than ethanol and can be transmitted through petroleum pipelines. However, just like ethanol, biobutanol production is concentrated on the use of edible raw materials, such as sugar beet, corn starch and sugar cane.

Now, James Liao, a biomolecular engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed two methods to free butanol from its dependence on food crops. James Liao said that there is a record of commercializing innovative biofuel processes. He has proved that microbial production of advanced biofuels can be produced directly from agricultural wastes or protein raw materials such as algae.

The direct conversion from cellulose to butanol demonstrated by James Liao can reduce costs and produce cellulose biofuel, which is currently too high. His protein-based process provides new raw material options for the biofuel field.

Although they are renewable energy sources, biofuels are facing attacks from environmental and food activists, and biobutanol is no exception: the first-generation biobutanol plant is under development and their operation will depend on Corn-based sugar and starch. "Butanol has some technical advantages, but the real problem is the number of crops used to make one gallon of fuel," said Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist who is in the Union of Scientists (Union of Concerned Scientists), a coalition of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and part of a broad coalition that pushed Congress to end the lucrative tax credits on corn ethanol.

James Liao's innovation may end the association between biobutanol and corn. This association is, ironically, partly due to him. In 2008, James Liao developed a microbial pathway that can convert sugar into isobutanol, a high-octane isomer of butanol. This innovation is currently being commercialized by Gevo, a start-up company in Englewood, Colorado, which was co-founded by James Liao. Gewo raised US $ 107 million and raised it from its initial public offering last month. It can support its plan to transform a corn ethanol plant to produce isobutanol.

These plans are to shift to biofuel production, using biomass raw materials, such as switchgrass, corn stover, bagasse (or plant residues), but progress is very slow, due to higher costs. The US Environmental Protection Agency's directive is to use only 6.6 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, less than 3% of the 250 million gallon target, which was set by the US Congress four years ago. The obstacle comes from the need to increase processing steps to break down these cellulosic feedstocks to produce sugar for fermentation; this processing greatly increases costs and makes it difficult to finance production facilities.

James Liao's process of directly converting cellulose to butanol was developed in collaboration with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This process is expected to simplify the process and expand the performance of fermentation microorganisms. The key is to increase James? Liao's method from sugar to isobutanol, to a microorganism, that is, Clostridium cellolyticum, like chewing biomass, but usually not made into butanol. Initially, this microorganism was isolated from composted grass. Two years ago, the United States Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute completed its genome arrangement.

This genetic engineering result was published in this month's magazine "Applied and Environmental Microbiology" (Applied and Environmental Microbiology), this result is a single organism, which ingests cellulose to make isobutanol. James Liao said that both yields and conversion rates were low, but he said that this "principle of principle" may be the most difficult part of the development process. "The rest is relatively simple. It is not unimportant, but simple. It becomes a problem of funds and resources," James Liao said.

The next step is genetic modification to form faster-growing Clostridium variants or other microorganisms. James Liao bet that the technology is only ready for production in just two years.

One obstacle that may slow things down is litigation, which is the right to use James Liao ’s technology. Gewo is being sued for patent infringement. The plaintiff is competitor Butamax Advanced Biofuels, but it is a joint venture between BP and DuPont. This company is like Gewo Similarly, it is also planned to convert corn-based ethanol plants to isobutanol. Butamax said that Gewo used genetic engineering to make butanol, which violated a pan-American patent, which was issued to Butamax in December 2010.

Another obstacle is worrying about the environment affecting the use of large biomass. In January this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft report to Congress to explore the environmental impact of biofuel production. The report outlines several issues, all related to the production of biomass-based fuels. The report points out that using corn stalks (leaves and stems after harvest) to produce fuel, rather than returning straw to farmland during farming, may cause soil degradation, block streams and rivers, and increase runoff. Environmentalists have suggested paying attention to cultivating marginal lands, which have been reserved to increase biodiversity and provide protective barriers around water bodies.

James Liao demonstrated that genetically engineered E. coli can turn protein into isobutanol, and also provides a potential substitute for biomass raw materials. This substitute is fast-growing, Algae with photosynthesis. Existing research and development projects to develop algae-based biofuels all seek to convert the oil and fat produced by algae, which accounts for about a quarter of the algae quality. In contrast, protein accounts for about two-thirds.

James Liao said that it is possible to create a regenerative production system in which isobutanol-producing microorganisms can be sustained, using algal proteins and industrial fermentation residues, which is the recycling of the previous round of butanol production. Like algae, the main component of fermentation residues is protein.

"These results show that it is feasible to use proteins for biorefining," James Liao and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said this month in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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