Our Bold Idea
The Curtiss research team has developed a process that removes a key obstacle to producing low-cost, renewable biofuels from bacteria. The team has reprogrammed photosynthetic microbes to secrete high-energy fats, making byproduct recovery and conversion to biofuels easier and potentially more commercially viable. “The real costs involved in any biofuel production are harvesting the goodies and turning them into fuel,” said Roy Curtiss. “This whole system that we have developed is a means to a green recovery of materials not requiring energy dependent physical or chemical processes.”
Curtiss is part of a large, multidisciplinary ASU team that has been focusing on optimizing photosynthetic microbes, called cyanobacteria, as a renewable source of biofuels. These microbes are easy to genetically manipulate and have a potentially higher yield than any plant crops currently being used for the production of transportation fuels. But, until now, harvesting the fats from the microbes has required many costly additional processing steps that contribute up to 70 to 80 percent of the total cost of their renewable biofuel production, making them uncompetitive compared with petroleum production costs. The team’s ingenuity rests in part with their ability to utilize the full repertoire of nature’s toolkit.
The group will test their results in large-scale photobioreactors, which are being designed by engineers in the institute’s Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology to optimally capture the free fatty acids. Ultimately, the team hopes to achieve development of a new, economical and environmentally friendly, carbon neutral source of biofuels. The project has been part of the state of Arizona’s strategic research investments to spur new innovation that may help foster future green and local industries because of its abundant year-round sunshine and warm temperatures are ideally suited for growing cyanobacteria. The work was supported by Biodesign Institute seed funding and a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Roy Curtiss, PhD
Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology