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The Navy Is Trying to Turn Bacteria Into Jet Fuel

David Grossman
Photo credit: Adele Williamson, Concetta De Santi, Bjørn Altermark, Erik Hjerde

From Popular Mechanics

  • Scientists are using seawater bacteria to engineer compounds that could potentially become cost-effective, renewable alternatives to crude oil.
  • Current jet fuel is inefficient and expensive. This could be a cheaper, cleaner solution.

It's the largest source of water on the planet, but seawater is mostly unusable for human purposes. Now, researchers from the U.S. Navy and the University of Manchester in England are using bacteria that grows in seawater to engineer high value compounds that show potential as jet fuel.

Discovered in 1980, the Halomonas bacteria is most notable for being extremely salt-tolerant. Scientists at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), supported by the Navy's Office of Naval Research Global (ONR), reengineered the microbe's genome. The changes altered the Halomonas' metabolism, which in turn allowed for the creation of compounds that could become cost-effective, renewable alternatives to crude oil. Scientists refer to it as a "microbial chasis."

"Effective biofuels strategies require the economic production of fuels derived from a robust microbial host on a very large scale—usually cultivated on renewable waste biomass or industrial waste streams—but also with minimal downstream processing and avoids use of fresh water," says Nigel Scrutton of the MIB in a press statement. "With Halomonas these requirements can be met, so minimizing capital and operational costs in the production of these next generation biofuels."

The current generation of biofuels are based in agriculture, using corn and sugar beets. But with Halomonas-based fuel, the scientists say, that agriculture could be used for human consumption instead. And using crude oil is notoriously dirty. Even being able to partially add the altered bacteria to fuel could make for a far cleaner energy.

Current jet fuel is inefficient. "For example, if you think about rosehip oil extraction—you need to plant hundreds of acres of flowers and then collect the flowers, squeeze the oil from the rose petals to process minute amounts for making the fragrance," says Patrick Rose, science director for ONR Global in London, in the statement.

It's "economically very expensive, land and resource intensive, subject to the climate for harvesting, when those resources could instead be employed for more sustainable agriculture," Rose continues. "It is possible to replicate the exact same molecules we harvest from crops to make high value compounds by exploiting this biological process by taking the genes out of the plant and inserting the information into bacteria. With this engineering feat, there is no dependence on environmental factors and an increased level of reliability in the product."

Finding fuel for big things that move fast is often dirty and hard to come by. There's also a race for creating a cleaner type of rocket fuel.

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