Liquid fuel from sunlight: A spotlight on cyanobacteria


Research and development of cleaner sources of energy is becoming increasingly more important in our society. Last week, President Barack Obama announced new measures to tackle climate change which included the need for new energy sources to reduce the nation’s increasing carbon footprint. The potential of cyanobacteria as a producer of biofuel is currently being supported as a cleaner fuel source with promising benefits. Researchers at Arizona State University are looking at how this very versatile and ancient organism and can help build a sustainable energy future.

On May 24, 2013, Dr. Dan Robertson, Senior Vice President and Lead Scientist at Joule Fuels, visited Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute to speak about Joule’s cyanobacteria research and development. Joule Fuels was established in 2007 with the goal of creating renewable transportation fuel with only the use of sunlight, waste carbon dioxide, and non-potable water. The goal was to be able to convert solar energy and waste CO2 directly to fuels without depleting agriculture land or fresh water. Joule Fuels chose cyanobacteria as their production system because this ancient organism can efficiently accomplish all of their previously stated goals. Harnessing the power of the sun and concentrating CO2 comes easily for photosynthetic organisms like cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria act as a biocatalyst, i.e., mini factory, which can use solar energy and carbon dioxide to produce and secrete fatty acids for the direct production of biofuel without major production of biomass. “Cyanobacteria as a photosynthetic biocatalyst is more efficient than algae in regards to photon capture and conversion efficiency” Dr. Robertson said. This could mean that the development of biofuels in the future could greatly rely on these mini-biofactories.

ASU Bioenergy Professor Wim Vermaas and his team have also made great strides in researching and developing cyanobacteria for biofuel production. In 2009, The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded a grant to Vermaas’s team to continue their research with cyanobacteria by funding their project until 2013. The main objective for Vermaas’s team is to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and limit harmful emissions to our environment with cyanobacteria as a method for transportation fuel. Vermaas’s team has also noted the sustainable benefits that cyanobacteria have over other photosynthetic biofuel platforms. In an interview with the team in the Summer 2011 edition of School of Life Sciences Magazine (SOLS) they stated that “Most photosynthetic biofuel platforms, such as algal systems or terrestrial plants for ethanol, require processing of the whole organism to extract the fuel, an expensive and time-consuming process”. Vermaas’s research combines both efficient solar-powered, CO2 consuming productions with little or no biomass, alongside technologies that efficiently transform fatty acids into economical and environmentally responsible transportation biofuels. This important research paves the path for the future of energy, which must be conscious of effects on our global environment.

Arizona State University’s LightWorks initiative aims to highlight renewable energy research that harnesses power from the sun. ASU research in cyanobacteria is a great example of an energy source that could benefit the goal of reducing our carbon footprint while providing a viable alternative transportation fuel for our future.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Photo retrieved by ASU News.

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