2010 President's Report

Skip video

Video Transcript

How do we ensure that children have access to healthy foods? THE SPARTANS PUT THE ENERGY CRISIS UNDER THE 				MICROSCOPE. AND THEY DISCOVERED THE FUTURE.

Think about alternative energy sources for automobiles. Biofuels? Sure. Electricity? You bet. But bacteria? If scientists at Michigan State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have their way, they will succeed in making a bacterium capable of metabolizing hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce isobutanol—aka gasoline’s future replacement.

“This project focuses on getting alternative fuels from gases rather than biomass. And instead of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they’re captured to create fuel,” says R. Mark Worden, MSU professor of chemical engineering, who was tapped to build a custom-made bioreactor suited specifically for the unique fermentation process.

Solar power will be used to make electricity that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha, which is being engineered by the MIT group, will be used to recombine the two in Worden’s bioreactor to create isobutanol as a fuel source. The approach, which has never before been attempted, presents significant challenges.

For example: once the bacterium is engineered to create the isobutanol, the isobutanol builds to toxic levels and kills the bacterium. Worden will have to develop a method for harvesting the isobutanol without disturbing fermentation. And, since the bacterium’s own fuel source—hydrogen gas—is not very water-soluble, he also must create a viable method for feeding it to the Ralstonia eutropha in a water-based environment.

Adding even more complexity to the equation, the bacteria require a small amount of oxygen to grow, and, since hydrogen and oxygen are a flammable combination, Worden must figure out how the two can peacefully coexist inside the bioreactor.

The task is formidable, but the long-term benefits could be game changing for clean energy technology. The project was awarded $1.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a Recovery Act program whose goal is to accelerate clean technology innovation and job creation.

Worden points out that using bacteria to create an alternative fuel could free the country from its dependence on foreign oil and accompanying price spikes—a situation that is likely to loom larger in coming years. And because it does not use crops like corn to create the fuel, it doesn’t affect food supplies.

“MSU has a great heritage and strength in agriculture and biology,” says Worden. “This allows our strengths to be translated to fulfill a societal need.”

Call it a perfect fermentation of sorts. One that will accelerate innovation in clean energy technology, increase America’s competitiveness, and create jobs. Not to mention help save the planet.

For more information:

Mark Worden

MSU Bioeconomy Network

MSU AgBioResearch

College of Engineering

This research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.