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Sandia partnering with MOgene on ARPA-E project for sunlight-assisted microbial conversion of methane to butanol

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories will use their expertise in protein expression, enzyme engineering and high-throughput assays as part of a two-year, $1.5-million award led by MOgene Green Chemicals (MGC, a wholly owned subsidiary of genomics services provider MOgene) targeting the sunlight-assisted conversion of methane to butanol.

The project is one of 15 selected for a total of $34 million in funding by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) as part of its Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy (REMOTE) program. (Earlier post.) MGC’s primary corporate objective is to engineer biocatalysts with novel functionality for production of molecules from non-food feedstocks that can be used for production of transportation fuel as well as commodity and specialty products.

The key to MGC technology is the use of a photosynthetic bacterium which is known to utilize sunlight for its entire energy requirement including fixation of CO2. By combining energy from sunlight, MGC technology will convert natural gas into fuel and would minimize emission of greenhouse gases.

Most methylotrophic organisms typically generate metabolic energy using natural gas as the substrate and if sunlight can be used as the source of this energy, it will increase efficiency, reduce equipment costs associated with the bio-based production of fuel from natural gas. When the technology is completely developed, it will be a single step conversion of natural gas into fuel.

Methanotrophs are microbes that can metabolize methane. Sandia’s Blake Simmons, manager of the labs’ biofuels and biomaterial science and technology group, calls this microbe the “poster child” of organisms that are capable of metabolizing and converting methane. The goal of the project is to engineer pathways from these organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol.

“The need for hydrocarbons that are non-petroleum in origin is still growing, including applications such as aviation and diesel engines. But in its natural state, you’re not going to readily burn natural gas in those types of engines.

—Blake Simmons

Simmons said MOgene brings a great deal of organism expertise to the table, while Sandia offers enzyme engineering and other capabilities.

There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past, since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and survive and multiply off of natural gas metabolism. The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do.

—Blake Simmons

ARPA-E’s projects hope to develop new, more efficient pathways to speed up the process and convert gaseous feedstocks at a pace and scale that is commercially viable. Currently, there are no proven biological methods for converting gaseous inputs such as natural gas into butanol, Simmons said.

What we and others are doing is looking at the core metabolism of these microbes. Then, we can either engineer it to make it faster in native organisms or we can take the metabolism out of those organisms and put it in something more industrially relevant.

—Blake Simmons

Comments

Engineer-Poet

Converting methane to butanol implies a large loss of hydrogen (3 H2).  The ideal bug would use this hydrogen to convert some other substrate, perhaps carbohydrate or even CO2, to the desired product as well.

SJC

Biomass can be digested into methane, so if they can go further to butanol that would be useful. It is a slow process, one that may not be a big money maker for investors.

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