E. Coli Gasoline: Will Bacteria-Based Fuel Power Your Car One Day? [STUDY]

By Josh Lieberman on September 30, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

gas pump
South Korean scientists have used a method for making gasoline from E. coli. (Photo: Reuters)

Scientists in South Korea have taken Escherichia coli, the feared, food-poisoning bacteria more frequently known as E. coli, and harnessed it to create something a little less scary: gasoline. The E. coli-produced stuff isn't just some sort theoretical or gasoline-like substance, but the genuine article.  

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"The gasoline we're generating could be used in your car," said Lee Sang-yup of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, who headed the team that created the E. coli gasoline. "It has identical composition and chemical properties to conventional petrol."

Lee and his team took a genetically modified version of E. coli and fed it glucose. The E. coli produced enzymes which converted the glucose sugar into fatty acids, which then turned into hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons are chemically identical to what you'd find in commercial fuel. (It sounds so easy, doesn't it?)

"The significance of this breakthrough is that you don't have to go through another process to crack the oil created by E. coli to produce gasoline," Lee told the Wall Street Journal. "We have succeeded in converting glucose or waste biomass directly into gasoline."

That glucose conversion, though, is not yielding huge amounts of gasoline. Right now, a liter of glucose only yields 580 milligrams of gasoline. You couldn't drive down the block with that much gasoline, but Lee said that his next goal is to up the ratio to three grams of gasoline per liter, and then try to keep increasing it from there.

This isn't the first time that E. coli has been used to create fuel. Earlier this year, scientists in England produced an oil from E. coli that was similar to diesel. Like Lee's fuel, though, the English scientists needed a massive quantity of bacteria to yield just a little fuel: it took 100 liters of E. coli to produce a teaspoon of the diesel replica.

Lee and his team's study on the E. coli gasoline, "Microbial production of short-chain alkanes," was published in the journal Nature.

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