University of Exeter scientists have developed a new method to make bugs produce diesel on demand.
While the technology still faces many significant commercialisation challenges, the diesel, produced by special strains of E. coli bacteria, is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and so does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by biodiesels derived from plant oils.
This also means that the diesel can be used with current supplies in existing infrastructure because engines, pipelines and tankers do not need to be modified. Biofuels with these characteristics are being termed 'drop-ins'.
E. coli bacteria naturally turn sugars into fat to build their cell membranes. Synthetic fuel oil molecules can be created by harnessing this natural oil production process.
Large scale manufacturing using E. coli as the catalyst is already commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry and, although the biodiesel is currently produced in tiny quantities in the laboratory, work will continue to see if this may be a viable commercial pathway to 'drop in' fuels.
The researchers hope that this breakthrough could help them to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.