Ticking Time Bomb

E coli into bio diesel PDF Print E-mail
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Biodiesel has often been hailed as a possible solution to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Biodiesel - made from either plants or used cooking oil is dense, and chemically similar to fossil fuels that we currently use - so it could easily be used in large engines.

Trains, cars and even aircraft already run on the fuel.

But most vehicles that use biodiesel use reprocessed cooking oil - which is too expensive, and too scarce to work on a large commercial scale.

For biodiesel to make a real impact, it would have to come directly from plants.

Now University of Stanford researchers say that the chemical process to produce cheap plant-based biodiesel could be within reach.

But recent experiments with E coli have hinted that the bacteria - commonly found in the intestines of mammals, and in some strains, responsible for food poisoning - could be the key.

Producing viable biodiesel from plants is a complicated process - and so far, there has not been a viable way to mass-produce the substance from plant oil.

E Coli can convert plant sugars into fatty acid derivatives - a chemical more similar to soap, but a good precursor of workable fuel.

But scientists were unsure whether the bacteria had enough chemical 'oomph' to be used commercially.

The Earthrace 'bioboat' was powered entirely by biodiesel - but it's not been commercially viable on the large scale due to the difficulty of producing the fuel directly from plants

Stanford professor Chaitan Khosla investigated whether there was a theoretical 'limit' to the amount E. Coli can help to turn sugar into a fatty acid derivative - ie whether the bacteria really does have the power to unlock fuel from ordinary plants.

It appears the answer is, 'Yes', according to a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

'The good news is that the engine that makes fatty acids in E Coli is incredibly powerful,' said Khosla. 'It can convert sugar into fuel at an extraordinary rate.'

This Formula 3 car was engineeered to run on biodiesel: Now it appears that the fuel could be produced on a commercial scale, cheaply from plants

But this process is tightly controlled by the bacteria - and fuller understanding of the biochemistry of E. Coli willl be required.

Khosla's team are already working on this - having isolated the molecular engine that produces fatty acids in a lab environment.

'We want to understand what limits the ability of E. Coli to process sugar,' said Khosla to Physorg.com, 'The question we were asking is like what limits the speed of my Honda to 150 miles an hour?'

So far, it appears that the bacteria limit the production to stop themselves being hurt by the fatty acids they produce.

The 'defences' it uses are highly effective - but researchers are already working on manipulating the bacteria to produce more.

If successful, biodiesel could suddenly leap from being a novelty to being a viable, commercial fuel.

'It is closer to a barrel of oil from Saudi Arabia than any other biologically derived fuel,' said Khosla.

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