Researchers explain in a forthcoming publication that they used the marvels of biology and chemistry to convert glucose (a sort of sugar) into olefins, a type of hydrocarbon and one of the numerous types of molecules that make up gasoline. Zhen Q. Wang of the University of Buffalo and Michelle C. Y. Chang of California, Berkeley, led the effort. Creating biofuels from renewable resources such as glucose has the potential to significantly enhance green energy technologies.
Olefins make up a tiny fraction of the molecules in gasoline as it is now generated. Still, Wang believes that the team’s technique may be modified in the future to create other types of hydrocarbons, including some of the additional gasoline components. She also mentions that olefins have non-fuel uses since they are utilized in industrial lubricants and as plastic precursors.
To finish the investigation, the researchers started by feeding glucose to strains of E. coli that aren’t harmful to humans. “These bacteria are sugar addicts, worse than our children,” Wang quips. The E. coli strains used in the studies were genetically modified to create a set of four enzymes that convert glucose into chemicals known as 3-hydroxy fatty acids. The bacteria began to produce fatty acids as they absorbed glucose.
To complete the transition, the researchers utilized a catalyst known as niobium pentoxide (Nb2O5) to cut off undesirable sections of the fatty acids in a chemical process, yielding the end product: olefins. The enzymes and catalyst were discovered by trial and error, with the scientists trying several compounds with qualities that suited the job at hand.
“We merged what biology can do best with what chemistry can do best to produce this two-step process,” says Wang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biological sciences at the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “We were able to directly produce olefins from glucose using this approach.” “Creating biofuels from renewable resources like glucose has tremendous promise to develop green energy technologies,” Wang adds.
“Photosynthesis, which makes carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar, is how plants make glucose. So the carbon in glucose and, eventually, olefins is derived from carbon dioxide extracted from the environment. “Wang goes into further detail.
However, more research is needed to thoroughly understand the benefits of the novel technology and if it can be efficiently scaled up to produce biofuels or other applications. One of the first concerns to be answered is how much energy the generating olefins uses; if the energy cost is too high, the technology must be modified to be practicable on an industrial scale.
Scientists want to increase the yield as well. Wang estimates that it now takes 100 glucose molecules to make around eight olefin molecules. She hopes to enhance that ratio by persuading E. coli to create more 3-hydroxy fatty acids for every gram of glucose ingested.
It sounds like modern-day alchemy: converting sugar into hydrocarbons similar to those found in gasoline. But scientists have done just that. Using genetically altered bacteria, glucose may be converted into a fatty acid, which can subsequently be converted into olefins, which are hydrocarbons. To cultivate such bacteria, scientists place them in flasks loaded with nutrients and shake them in an incubator to promote oxygen flow.