INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of JINGNAN & CHRIS
You might have noticed that, throughout this special auto-themed week, we’ve featured quite a few academics: professors, researchers, scientists… The reason for that, simply being, is that the greatest innovations in the transportation industry have indeed started in a lab. A team of MIT scientists (led by Anthony Siskey and composed of Christopher Brigham, Claudia Gai, and Jingnan Lu) might have made one of the most exciting discoveries yet regarding energy independence, by convincing a soil bacterium — one of the smallest and most abundant microbes in the soil — to turn carbon into gasoline. That’s right: the fuel for your car could soon come from a simple soil bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha.
Oh, and if you’re an innovator and think you’ve got an idea — like Chris’s and Jignan’s — that will change the world, check out NissanInnovationGarage.com; they’re providing two outstanding innovators with $50,000 to jumpstart their ideas. (Plus a new Altima. Plus a Kickstarter campaign.) It could be you, so don’t hesitate! You might be our next BR!NKer.
First off, congratulations on the publication of your article in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology. How has the reception been?
CB: Very, very good. I’m a little surprised, to be quite honest! I think it goes to show that biofuels should not be underestimated.
Before going deeper inside your current research, what is the ultimate goal you and your team are trying to accomplish within the world of transportation?
CB: We want to make biofuels. Something that will take the place of and/or augment the petroleum-based fuels that we’re using now, and to do so as inexpensively as possible.
CB: We want to look at an inexpensive carbon stream with which to produce our biofuels using our biocatalyst, which is the Ralstonia eutropha bacterium. Luckily, it is a soil bacteria that can use all sorts of different carbon compounds as food, including carbon dioxide. All you really need to do is concentrate CO2 from a steel plant, coal fire plant, or any of these inexpensive sources of carbon. From there, we can grow the cell autotrophically in the presence of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen — and produce isobutanol, which is our biofuel of choice currently.
Ralstonia eutropha bacteria are being used to produce biofuel. Image courtesy of Christopher Brigham
Are there other sources of carbon that can be used?
CB: You can get carbon from a variety of sources. Obviously, sugars come from things like carrots, beets, or other food products, such as sugar cane. You can use lipids, like fatty acids, from plants (such as seeds) or animals.
And a lot of this is waste, right?
CB: Waste, a lot of waste. And chemistry that we make from petroleum or other sources. All will contain carbon.
Jingnan, what is the process in obtaining isobutanol? How are you able to get it out of the cell?
JL: Ralstonia, as a bacterium, can secrete this isobutanol that is made intracellularly. We don’t actually need to break the cell or destroy the cell wall to obtain the isobutanol. This actually makes the isobutanol process much easier, because it will just naturally secrete it into the surrounding media and it can then be extracted out.
CB: Think of the cell as a body. It’s ejecting from the body of the cell.
So it’s an organic process; it’s doing this of its own accord, and you’re able to harness this natural reaction?
Which means you didn’t have to use any sort of transport system?
Do you think it will be possible — and I’m clearly trying to look into the future here — do you think it will ever be possible to turn carbon dioxide into fuel?
CB: Yes, we believe that is possible.
You’ve been funded by the US Department of Energy. Do you believe that the government is now putting a lot of resources into gasoline stand-ins?
CB: Yes. Currently there is a lot of interest in that. And I think that places like the Navy, other armed services, are interested in what’s going on. I think, especially, that the Secretary of the Navy’s been very forward-thinking in terms of biofuels and operation of their vehicles and vessels.
What are some of the next steps you plan to accomplish in the next year?
JL: First, we want to make this process more efficient. That’s an immediate goal. And then, secondly, it’s to be able to use the waste carbon and scale up this process — to take large amounts of carbon dioxide and make it into large quantities of isobutanol.
CB: Right now, we’re making grams of isobutanol, but we really want to be making kilograms. We can also envision waste streams to biofuel. Not just carbon dioxide, though it should play a role in it. Hopefully, by providing that inexpensive carbon that we need. The removal of isobutanol from the culture, we’re part of the way there, if not most of the way there. We’re hopeful. We’re cautiously hopeful on the project.
Is the end goal, at least in the first stage, to have a substitute or something that works with fuel?
CB: That’s what’s going on with ethanol right now — they say it’s an additive. I think a realistic short-term goal is using isobutanol as a fuel additive. Certainly, I know they run race cars in the American Le Mans Series on 100% isobutanol. I think that’s produced by yeast. But the infrastructure’s already there for us. I think isobutanol can end up being a good drop-in fuel, meaning we don’t have to tweak anything in terms of the vehicle, the distribution system.
It will be interesting to see how private companies react to this advancement. I’m guessing there might be some very happy people, and some people who won’t be as pleased, right?
CB: Probably. We’ll have to see how that shakes down. I know that petroleum companies like BP — I mean, dare I say that after what happened recently — they’re interested in the biofuel space as well. Whether their interest is genuine or not, I can’t speak to. But at least they’re casting an eye in that direction.
Jingnan, you’re currently a graduate student at MIT. What are you studying, specifically?
JL: This is actually part of my thesis work. In the past, I was actually a chemistry graduate student, but I got so interested in this project that I joined this lab (in the department of biology).
What kind of car do you both drive?
CB: I drive a hybrid.
That doesn’t surprise me! [laughter]
JL: My mom bought my car [laughs], but if I had a choice I would go with a hybrid, as well.
What would you like people to take out of your research, and this interview?
CB: More awareness that there are alternative methods that we can employ to achieve a common goal. Everyone wants to drive their cars. There are many ways we can become independent in terms of fuel and save money at the same time. One of the main things I want to get across is that this is all happening as a result of academic research. People need to realize the importance of academic scientific research and the amazing things that can come out of it. Understanding this goes a long way to the next innovators. The academics of today are the innovators of tomorrow.
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