Powering Cars with Bugs

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Mark Worden (view larger image)

An MABR bioreactor expert was tapped to be on a team working to exploit a bacterium’s potential ability to produce a type of butanol that can be used as an automobile fuel.

R. Mark Worden, MABR chemical engineering scientist, is part of the group receiving $1.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) 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, MIT professor of biology, 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 underway,” 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.”

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