Microorganisms, genetic engineering, and alternative fuels

  • 01-Nov-2012 12:03 EDT
Audi10-12 Krieger 2.jpg

Audi's Michael Krieger believes his company's work with Joule points the way forward to new e-fuels.

Achieving credibility for potential solutions is always a tough call for inventors, and an equally tough one for manufacturing companies that must make the “neat or nutty” decision about an idea.

The automotive industry has had its fair share of creatives propounding theories to solve just about every known problem that it has faced. But the industry is conservative in its approach to such things, whether they come from an independent engineer or designer, or from the corporate ingenuity of a supplier or OEM.

So, when Audi espoused an idea that may see the effects of the combination of microorganisms, waste CO2, sun-seared deserts, and genetic modification to create synthetic e-fuels to meet infinite global energy needs without draining the Earth’s resources, it might be thought that the word “caution” would be illuminated by flashing red lights.

Discharged by the microorganisms, the fuels are separated from the water and purified, states the company.

But Audi is very serious about it all, cooperating with U.S. company Joule Unlimited based in Cambridge, MA, with the aim of achieving commercial success via the production of e-diesel and e-ethanol, the former eventually rivaling the cost and efficiency of regular diesel.

Michael Krieger, Project Manager Sustainable Product Development/e-fuels at Audi, is confident of success. “This type of plant producing e-fuels on an industrial scale would be cheaper than an oil refinery, and by 2020 we will be able to produce e-diesel at a similar cost level to that of fossil fuel diesel—about $100 per barrel at today’s prices,” he said.

Audi and Joule already have commissioned a demonstration facility in New Mexico to produce sustainable e-ethanol, with e-diesel to follow next year. The plant is in an area of high-level solar radiation. The fuel is described as having the same qualities as biomass-based bioethanol but with a yield per unit area at least 10 times greater.

Audi sees fuel sources that compete with food-producing agriculture as ultimately not a good solution because populations are growing rapidly. Also, biomass needs various quality processes that can be difficult to control, said Krieger.

Which is why Audi is exploring a radical route. Krieger explained that a single organism is genetically modified and then allowed to reproduce over a period of weeks: “When there are billions of organisms, we introduce them into the process.”

The production process involves single-cell microorganisms measuring less than 000.1 mm. Like plants, they grow via oxygenic photosynthesis, using sunlight and CO2 to form carbohydrates. They can be sustained in salt or waste water.

The specialists at Joule have modified the photosynthesis process to enable the genetically modified microorganisms to produce ethanol or long-chain alkanes (vital elements of diesel fuel) directly from the CO2.

Basically, the process works in a hosepipe that at present is 100 m long. “But you could have many sections next to each other,” Krieger noted.

Audi states that e-ethanol has the same chemical properties as bioethanol. It can be burned as a blend with gasoline or as the basic component of E85. Development of e-diesel is now progressing. Audi describes it as being a particularly pure fuel, whereas regular diesel is a mix of various organic compounds.

It also has a high cetane number, thus aiding combustion. It is said to easily blend with regular diesel and is free of sulfur and aromatics.

Krieger adds that it is only now that computer and nanotechnology allow the necessary rapid programming (genetic modification) of sufficient microorganism examples: “You take billions of them at once and within seconds the required genetic modification can be achieved.”

He believes that the production method will prove easily scalable and that eventually “just a fraction” of the world’s desert areas would be sufficient for global road transport fuel needs.

CO2 emissions would be similar to those of diesel.

Krieger is confident that investment costs likely will be far lower than those for a regular oil refinery, despite the facilities being sited in highly inhospitable areas.

In a statement, Audi said: “Joule has protected its technology with patents for which Audi has acquired exclusive rights in the automotive field. Audi engineers with extensive know-how in the areas of fuel and engine testing are helping to further develop these remarkable fuels so that they can genuinely be brought to the market.”

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