Man-made bacteria breathes carbon dioxide to produce energy ten times better than plants

Plants, unlike us, absorb carbon dioxide and kick out oxygen. That makes them handy to have around given our love of the stuff, but their production isn’t too efficient.

Man-made bacteria breathes carbon dioxide to produce energy ten times better than plants

So it’s really quite exciting that Harvard professor of energy Daniel G. Nocera has genetically engineered a bacteria that absorbs sunlight and breathes carbon dioxide to produce energy. And it does so at around 10% photosynthetic efficiency – roughly ten times better than plants.

Before anyone gets too excited, it should be stressed that this will do nothing for our huge climate change problem, in fact it ends up as carbon neutral because of the way it works. “I’m taking CO2 out of the air, you burn it and you put the CO2 back,” Nocera explained in a lecture to the energy policy institute in Chicago, as reported by Forbes. “I’m not going to reverse 400 ppm of CO2. But you’re not going to use any more stuff out of the ground.”daniel_nocera_photosynthesis_bacteria

The bacteria has been christened Ralston eutropha, and converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into alcohol fuel. “Right now we’re making isopropanol, isobutanol, isopentanol. These are all alcohols you can burn directly. And it’s coming from hydrogen from split water, and it’s breathing in CO2. That’s what this bug’s doing,” explained Nocera. “Light in, and these things just excrete it out, and then you can collect it.”

A one litre reactor packed with Ralston eutropha can take in 500 litres of CO2 from the atmosphere each day, meaning that each kilowatt hour of energy produced will temporarily take out 237 litres of CO2 from the air.

“I can just let the bugs grow exponentially. They’re eating hydrogen, that’s their only food source, and then they breathe in CO2, and they keep multiplying. They procreate, and that goes into an exponential growth curve,” Nocera said.

Nocera hopes that its first use will be to provide electricity to rural areas of India not currently connected to the grid. “I want them to invest in Indian scientists, in India, and make it in India,” he said. “So that’s going to be my new model. And we’re going to see if it works. I have a cool discovery, it’s now got to go to scale-up, but I want them to do it.”

READ NEXT: Taking on climate change with technology

Images: Pop Tech and Carissa Rogers used under Creative Commons

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