A new bioreactor to be designed at MSU will produce isobutanol, which can be used instead of gasoline.

MSU uses $1.7 million grant to harvest alternative fuel from bacteria

MSU News, May 26 2010

A Michigan State University bioreactor expert is part of a team tapped to exploit a bacterium’s potential ability to produce an alternative fuel for automobiles.

R. Mark Worden, MSU professor of chemical engineering, is part of a group receiving $1.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to build a reactor system for Ralstonia eutropha, a bacterium that scientists aim to engineer to metabolize hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce isobutanol, a fuel that can be used as a replacement for gasoline.

Anthony Sinskey, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leads the genetic engineering team.

“The MIT group is focused on the biology of the bacterium and engineering it to produce isobutanol,” Worden explained. “Early this spring, they realized they needed a bioreactor expert, and I was asked to be a collaborator. My role is to build a reactor system at MSU for this unique fermentation system.”

Worden has to overcome two major challenges in developing the bioreactor system. Once Ralstonia eutropha is engineered to produce isobutanol, the isobutanol eventually will build up to a toxic level and kill the bacterium. So he must create a way to “harvest” the isobutanol without interrupting the fermentation process.

Secondly, because the bacterium’s energy source – hydrogen gas – is not very water-soluble, Worden must figure out how to feed it to the bacterium in a water-based system.

“We also have to make sure the bioreactor system is safe,” Worden said. “The Ralstonia cells need a little bit of oxygen to grow, but hydrogen and oxygen together are flammable. So I’ll figure out how the two gases can co-exist in the system and minimize any risk of explosion.”

Worden plans to start building the bioreactor immediately.

This project is part of the second round of grants from the ARPA-E, a program aimed at accelerating innovation in clean energy technologies, increasing America’s competitiveness and creating jobs.

“Thanks to the Recovery Act, dozens of cutting-edge research projects with the potential to dramatically transform how we use the energy in this country will now be able to get under way,” said Vice President Joe Biden when he announced the awards. “By investing in our top research, we’re not only continuing in the spirit of American innovation, but helping build a competitive American clean energy industry that will create secure jobs here at home for years to come.”

Worden’s research also is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.