Articles — 29 September 2014

Don’t feel guilty about driving everywhere you go; propane can now be produced in a sustainable way. A team of scientists, led by professor Patrik Jones at Imperial has found a way to convert glucose to propane using a genetically engineered bacterium E coli. Their product is identical to propane produced from fossil fuels and could be used as a viable fuel for machinery we use everyday such as cars, barbecue grills and home heating systems.

The team engineered the E coli bacterium to produce propane by altering its biological process of fatty acid synthesis. A group of thioesterase enzymes were initially inserted into the bacterium, which produced a smelly fatty acid. Subsequently, two additional enzymes were introduced into the mechanism that turned the fatty acid product into propane. Fuels such as petrol or diesel were overlooked because their production is much more complex. Propane was also chosen over other fuels because it can be liquefied with substantially less energy and is compatible with existing infrastructure.

Jones acknowledges that their new work only produced tiny amounts of propane. This renewable process is not ready for industrial scaled production, but lays down important groundwork for a sustainable way to produce propane. Beforehand, the only two sources of propane productions were petrol refining and natural gas processing.

It is essential to find novel ways to produce energy that are renewable as our world’s population and energy demands continue to increase. Hopefully synthetic biology will help continue to pave the way for finding innovative methods of sustainable energy production. It’s too soon to not think about your personal energy use, be responsible and carpool!

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Daniel Goldfarb

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