Biofuel got its start over a century ago, in 1876, when the Otto Cycle became the first combustion engine that used a combination of alcohol and gasoline. While this vehicle didn’t use biofuel, it inspired Ford to power the Model T with ethanol made from corn – thus becoming the first major production vehicle to run on ethanol.
In 2003, states began banning MTBE, an additive to gasoline that started contaminating groundwater. The main replacement was corn-based ethanol, and now, thanks to initiatives like the Renewable Fuels Standard of 2007, a minimum of 36 billion gallons of biofuel will be sold by 2022.
Biofuels today still include ethanol, but are increasingly becoming more oriented toward other sources of fuel. Researchers are working to find a fuel source that can be grown reliably and at scale that is renewable, carbon-neutral, and economical.
One group at the University of Delaware is making strides toward producing biofuel from an unusual enabler: clostridium bacteria.
How Clostridium Bacteria Contributes to Biofuel
Clostridium bacteria can be found in the soil and in our digestive tracts. While some forms are harmless to humans, others enable certain pathogens that cause infection and other health issues. Even these forms can have productive uses, though; Clostridium botulinum is used to produce Botox, while other strains are used as helpful probiotics.
Bioengineers at the University of Delaware, led by Terry Papoutsakis, are studying clostridium bacteria as a way to help produce biofuel. This type of bacteria is an anaerobic digester of macronutrients like carbohydrates and protein. When they digest these nutrients, and other molecules, they produce by-products like butanol and ethanol – the same substance that is currently used in gasoline.
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, this group will study how to use combinations of different strains of clostridium bacteria to digest biomass – such as scrap wood – and convert it into biofuel.
The ultimate goal, according to Papoutsakis, is to produce sustainable, renewable fuel.
If the project succeeds, and a viable path toward renewable and scalable biofuel is found, then that discovery would provide enormous benefits for an economy that still relies on gasoline and the negative environmental effects that the fuel source brings with it.
Such a discovery would also provide a substantial boost to the biomass industry and could result in a wave of new jobs and new investments in the field across the nation.
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