Oh, so there’s a problem with releasing excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels?

OK, no big deal, we’ll just use that CO₂ to make some carbon-neutral biofuel, sound good?

That’s the claim being presented by researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) in an article posted by Bio Fuel Daily.

Michael Adams, UGA Bioenergy Systems Research Institute member, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, co-authored the study.  “Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do – absorb it and generate something useful,” Adams stated.

co2 eating bacteriaHe elaborates on the potential of the study, “What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman…[w]e can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”

The conversion process begins by isolating a microorganism known as Pyrococcus furiosus.  P. furiosus normally feeds on carbohydrates in warm ocean waters near geothermal vents.  Instead, Adams’ team of researchers discovered a method of feeding the microorganism some carbon dioxide at a much lower temperature than usual.

The research team went one step further by incorporating additional hydrogen gas to the equation as well. This results in altering the carbon dioxide within the microorganism into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, which is a commonly-used chemical for acrylics and other useful materials.  The team claims that by additionally testing genetic manipulations of P. furiosus, the potential of creating a biofuel literally from thin air is quite possible.  The best part is since the biofuel was created with what is essentially recycled carbon particles from the air, the emissions that result from burning the biofuel would release the same amount of CO₂ into the air as it took to produce.  This carbon neutrality is far more efficient and healthier for the environment in comparison to burning fossil fuels the way we do today.

As Adams alluded to, one of the greatest hindrances from generating biofuel on a large scale stems from the inefficiency to grow, transport, and decompose various grasses or plants to create cellulosic ethanol.  Considering that the University of Georgia can spend zero dollars to generate carbon dioxide from the air, all money spent on developing and transporting raw materials for biofuel would be more expensive by default.

With that said, Adams also indicated that the public is a long way away from seeing carbon neutral biofuel.  For the time being, the US government still touts cellulosic ethanol as the best alternative that’s currently available.  This is clearly evident, based on how the US has been the world’s largest producer of ethanol since 2005 and how it has also mandated E10 fuel in 2007 for the next 15 years.

Despite the limited potential for now, Adams remains upbeat for the future of their discovery, “This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels…in the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.”