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Univ. of Washington and partners working to engineer microbes for conversion of methane to lipids for processing into liquid intermediates for diesel or jet fuels

In a $4.8-million project funded by ARPA-E (earlier post), the University of Washington, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Johnson-Matthey, and Lanza Tech are working to develop optimized microbes to convert methane found in natural gas into lipids for further processing into an intermediate liquid for diesel or jet fuel.

The University of Washington is taking the lead and focusing on genetically modifying the microbes. NREL will be in charge of fermentation to demonstrate the productivity of the microbes, both the natural organism and the genetically-altered varieties. NREL will also extract the lipids from the organisms and analyze the economic potential of the plan.

Johnson-Matthey will produce the catalysts that turn the lipids in the methane into fuel, while Illinois-based Lanza Tech, a pioneer in waste-to-fuels technology, has signed on to take the bench-scale plan to the commercial level, if it is successful.

The team will start with microorganisms that grow naturally on methane, a component of natural gas, and which have a natural ability to make lipids from the methane. A goal of this project is to genetically engineer that microorganism to both increase the amount of membrane lipids and to get the microorganism to produce non-phosphorous-based lipids that are more readily converted to fuels.

The end product would be a fuel intermediate that then could be piped to a refinery for final processing into diesel or jet fuel. The intermediate fuels produced could also be used on site at oil and gas wells to power equipment or for heating.

We’ll be leveraging our decades of experience in producing biofuels and lipids, which in the past we’ve typically done via algae. Here, we’ll be applying it to a brand new feedstock, natural gas, which is recognized as being critically important to the United States.

—Phil Pienkos, NREL’s principle investigator on the liquid to diesel project

The University of Washington team is led by Dr. Mary Lidstrom, Vice Provost for Research and Professor in Chemical Engineering and Microbiology.

In 2010, Dr. Lidstrom and Dr. David Baker (also at the University of Washington) in collaboration with Ginkgo Bioworks and UC Berkeley were selected for a $6-million Electrofuels ARPA-E grant to engineer the bacterium E. coli to produce isooctane for liquid transportation fuels from electricity and carbon dioxide. (Earlier post.)

Separately, NREL and Johnson-Matthey are also collaborating on a new 5-year, $7-million effort to produce economically drop-in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from non-food biomass feedstocks. The goal is to improve vapor-phase upgrading during the biomass pyrolysis process in order to lower costs and speed production of lignocellulose-based fuels; as part of the work, Johnson Matthey will supply and develop innovative new catalytic materials for such upgrading. (Earlier post.)



Methane-to-lipids is not going to be very efficient, due to the massive loss of hydrogen (unless some species other than O2 is used; perhaps CO2, or even sulfur?).

If this works well at a small scale, it could be great for treating landfill gas instead of flaring it.


If methane is a component of NG and is removed & used for the new fuel, what is left over & what will they do with it?


NG also contains CO2, H2S, and hydocarbons C2 and heavier.  Ethane and ethylene are desirable chemical feedstocks, propanes and butanes are good for LPG, and pentanes-plus can go into motor gasoline.


is it more efficient than the standard Fischer–Tropsch process?

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