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Building an alternative “bio” fuel that skips growing plants – just biology + photovoltaics = a new “electrofuel” system

While I am an algae advocate and indeed algae based bio-fuel production is a few years ahead of other methods on the road to a scale-up of the process for commercial use, as methods are worked out to get the cost down to compete with gasoline, there are still other ideas being developed that have great potential. One of those ideas is a “bio-reactor” that stores electricity as liquid fuel via using a genetically engineered microbe and carbon dioxide, which seems a more efficient way to turn sunlight into fuel for our cars and homes than using plants and mining or drilling for the remnants of those ancient plants or growing new plants that are converted into biofuel.

So it seems one can just get electricity from a solar panel and send the current to an electrode in the bio-reactor, which is full of water, CO2, and a modified microbe called Ralstonia eutropha, a microbe that normally uses hydrogen as an energy source to build CO2 for its personal growth With a few tweaks the microbe can currently be used in industry to turn out plastic, and now a tweak allows it can be tweaked to produce various butanols. The electric current flows into an electrode in the bio-reactor, which is full of water, CO2 and a shielded from electrical shock via a “porous ceramic cup” R. eutropha, the CO2 becomes carbon dioxide with a hydrogen atom attached which is an energy source for the microbe, and the microbe produces butanols with more CO2 as a waste product that is recycled back to the start of the process. Except of course chemical engineer James Liao of the University of California has only been able to produce 140 milligrams per liter of butanol fuel over 80 hours, before the system stopped working.

But this is neat as it provides a direct way to energy-dense liquid fuels and doing so in a limited area – with no plants needed! Plants and photosynthesis only deliver corn ethanol fuel energy that is less than 0.2 percent of the original energy in the sunlight on the corn. This takes the solar cell’s photovoltaic conversion of 15 percent of incoming photons into electricity, and STORES it in a liquid fuel and does not require many square miles of farm land to obtain that fuel!

So we have a proof of principle — but one that breaks at 80 hours perhaps due to R. eutropha’s genetic instability, or some previously unknown susceptibility to butanol poisoning.

But does it scale up better/cost less than other methods for “liquid fuel without plants”, such as using electricity to knit CO2 and hydrogen into methanol, or the attempt to create the complete plant food making process being done by chemist Nate Lewis at the DOE’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis in Pasadena, Calif.? As we find out it would seem to be an exciting time for research!

Now will Congress really cut the DOE’s funding of these research projects? The Ryan GOP budget cuts Science and technology R&D investment per capita by 24%, and even the so-called continuing resolution, which provides funding for the federal government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, is cutting DOE’s Office of Science by 18%. .

What are Obama and the Democrats going to do to preserve the funds for this research? Will the oil companies be able to shut down this research?

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Rest in Peace Earl Scruggs: January 6, 1924 - March 28, 2012