By Scott Doggett
Researchers at the South San Francisco biotechnology startup LS9 claim today to have discovered a way to produce alkanes - the major hydrocarbon constituents of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel - in a direct, simple conversion from sugar.
If true, the development could lead to a significant reduction in the cost of producing "drop-in" hydrocarbon fuels that are low-carbon, sustainable and compatible with the existing fuel distribution infrastructure.
"This is a one step sugar-to-diesel process that does not require elevated temperatures, high pressures, toxic inorganic catalysts, hydrogen or complex unit operations," said Steve del Cardayre, LS9's vice president of research and development.
In an article published in Science, LS9 researchers announced the discovery of novel genes that, when expressed in the bacterium E. coli (pictured), produce alkanes, the primary hydrocarbon components of the fuels mentioned above.
Alkanes, also known as paraffins or saturated hydrocarbons, are chemical compounds that consist only of the elements carbon and hydrogen (i.e., hydrocarbons). Alkanes include methane, ethane, propane, butane and octane.
It is the first description of the genes responsible for alkane biosynthesis and the first example of a single-step conversion of sugar to fuel-grade alkanes by an engineered microorganism.
According to an article in Biofuels Digest, scientists have spent the last 20 years failing in their attempts to identify the genes that enable particular natural organisms to directly convert biomass into alkanes.
The LS9 team claims to have succeeded by looking into the genomes of bacteria that produce alkanes in nature, which are known as cyanobacteria.