Fiat 1.4L Multiair Turbo Wins Best New Engine of 2010 Award
Scuderi Split-Cycle Engine Obtaining Better Combustion Consistency Under Low Load When One Crossover Passage Is Shut Off

Dr. James Liao Wins 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Academic Award; Second 2010 Green Chemistry Award for Advanced Biofuels

Dr. James Liao has genetically engineered microorganisms to make higher alcohols from glucose or directly from carbon dioxide. Easel Biotechnologies. Click to enlarge.

The US Environmental Protection Agency selected Dr. James Liao at UCLA as the recipient of the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Academic Award for his work in genetically engineering microorganisms to make higher alcohols (those with more than two carbons in the molecule) from glucose or directly from carbon dioxide. (Earlier post, earlier post.)

The award to Dr. Liao was the second for work on advanced biofuels within the five Green Chemistry awards made this year; the Small Business Green Chemistry award went to LS9, for its work on renewable biohydrocarbon fuels. (Earlier post.)

Higher alcohols, especially those with 3-8 carbon atoms, are useful as chemical feedstocks and transportation fuels. The efficient biosynthesis of these alcohols directly from carbon dioxide (CO2) or indirectly from carbohydrates would reduce net carbon emissions. However, native organisms do not synthesize these alcohols. Until now, none of these alcohols have been synthesized directly from CO2, and alcohols above five carbons have never been synthesized in the biosphere.

Dr. Liao, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), co-founder and board member of Easel Biotechnologies and a founder of Gevo, has developed a microbial technology to produce alcohols with 3-8 carbon atoms from CO2. His technology leverages the highly active amino acid biosynthetic pathway, diverting its 2-keto acid intermediates toward alcohols.

With this technology, Professor Liao and his group have produced isobutanol from glucose in near-theoretical yields with high efficiency and specificity. They also transferred the pathway into a photosynthetic microorganism, Synechococcus elongatus PCC7942, which produces isobutyraldehyde and isobutanol directly from CO2. The engineered strain produces isobutanol at a higher rate than those reported for ethanol, hydrogen, or lipid production by cyanobacteria or algae. This productivity is also higher than the current rate of ethanol production from corn. The technology shows promise for direct bioconversion of solar energy and CO2 into chemical feedstocks, the EPA said in its award summary.

As fuel substitutes, higher alcohols have several advantages over ethanol, including higher energy density, lower hygroscopicity, and lower vapor pressure leading to better air quality. After excretion by the cells as aldehydes, the products are readily stripped from the bioreactor, avoiding toxicity to the microbes. Chemical catalysis then converts the harvested aldehydes to alcohols or other chemicals.

If 60 billion gallons of higher alcohols were used each year as chemical feedstocks and fuel (replacing 25% of gasoline), Dr. Liao’s technology could eliminate about 500 million tons of CO2 emissions or about 8.3% of the total US CO2 emissions, the EPA said. Easel Biotechnologies is commercializing the CO2-to-fuels technology under exclusive license from UCLA.

Easel is also a member of a consortium including UCLA and UC Davis that was awarded $4 million from ARPA-E to develop microorganisms using synthetic biology and metabolic engineering techniques to use electricity instead of sunlight for biological carbon dioxide fixation and fuel synthesis. This process will repurpose carbon dioxide for use as a liquid fuel that can be readily used as a high octane gasoline substitute. (Earlier post.)



"However, native organisms do not synthesize these alcohols. Until now, none of these alcohols have been synthesized directly from CO2, and alcohols above five carbons have never been synthesized in the biosphere."

Unless I'm reading this wrong, this statement is blatantly false. Perhaps being more specific to their point the statement was meant to say that these pathways do not exist commercially at the moment. Anyway way you cut it I've made the alcohols with native biology and no genetic manipulation from 3 carbon and up beyond 8 carbon.

I think a bigger problem is these bold false statements coming out of the biofuel and bioliquids industry right now.

My departing statement is that fuel must be worthless, which makes it difficult to build a business plan around.

Henry Gibson

Perhaps there will be people who will eventually realize that growing corn to make ethanol puts more CO2 into the air than just growing trees on the land and using a bit more fossil fuel. This is true even if there is more energy in the ethanol than is in the fossil fuel used to produce it. If the corn stalk and other residues are fed to cattle they also convert it to CO2. Cattle are not necessary for human life. Humans can eat supplimented and processed corn quite efficiently.

Anything true about corn is also applicable about other biofuels. Ethanol is a food, and other biofuels can be made into foods as well. Esquimaux have always made a choice about using animal oils in lamps or eating it.

There cannot be enough biofuels produced to even make up the use of automobile fuels. ..HG..


"higher alcohols have several advantages over ethanol"

One of those could be cold starting, which is why there is 15% gasoline in M85. Mixed alcohols could work, the Syntec process creates several alcohols. If one of those allows cold starting then we need no gasoline at all.

Donough Shanahan


Higher alcohols would be insoluble in water and the extraction costs from the fermentation broth would be very cheap.


Very nice,
These organisms can first transform many biological waste products to fuels or plastics.
Secondly, if they get a photosynthetic organism to a quantum efficiency of nearly 100% at certain wavelengths, LEDS producing these precises photons can be used in a photobiorector to produce these valuable chemicals with high efficiency from solar or wind energy in a very green way at the location of need.
These photobioreactors can produce fuels, chemicals, animal feed, human food, ... without any toxic byproducts or waste. By only small changes in the used organism, completely different chemicals can be made in modular (=cheap) photobiorectors. There's a huge future for this.


Presumably someone thought about the implication of this technology before making this award.

Alain, IF your reactor works with photosynthetic organisms producing certain wavelengths, it can also work with direct sunlight properly filtered to the wavelength desired. Solar by day, synth by night.

Alcohols play a major role in the transition to electrification of transport and energy independence.


The problem with biosynthesis is (contrary to classical solar cells) they have high efficiencies at certain wavelengths but very low efficiency for the total spectrum. So it makes sense to produce electricity with solar panels and then make light again (in the specific wavelengths) in the reactor. This way, also wind energy can be used or any other clean electricity source.
It may also be more efficient to produce simple organic molecules using renewables and CO2 and then 'upgrade' these simple bulk molecules to the variety of complex molecules we would like using these organisms.



There is no "fermentation broth" because the Syntec process uses gasification. The idea is to produce an alcohol that can be mixed with methanol that does not require gasoline at all for cold engine starting.



Cold starting Otto cycle engines run on even hydrous E100 is a solved problem. No need for new high tech solutions.

Here in Brazil, ethanol cars used to have a small extra tank of gasoline (similar to the windshield fluid one) used for gasoline injection when cold starting.

There is a Bosch solution that heats the fuel rail before cold starting and does not need gasoline help. It's sold on the VW Polo E-flex since the begining of 2009.

The Brazilian Volkswagen Polo E-Flex 2009 was the first flex fuel model without an auxiliary tank for cold start.)

Delphi (ex-GM parts division) has another solution where the fuel is also heated but this time at the injector. This helps cold starting and also reducing cold start emissions, even with regular gasoline.


* Eliminates the need for auxiliary gasoline cold-start fuel systems on vehicle applications that use E100 fuel
* Enables E100 cold starting below 18° C without the need to add gasoline
* No pre-crank heating time is required unlike competitive heated rail injection systems
* Helps reduce hydrocarbon (HC) and carbon-monoxide (CO) emissions to help manufacturers meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cold start testing at 20° C (EPA 75)

IMHO, E85 is a fetish. In times of EFI, there is no real need neither mix gasoline nor to use anhydrous ethanol for fear of water, and pay for the extra cost.

FlexFuel engines should handle E100 and HE100, and from an energy security point of view, vehicles should be prepared to use any mix of ethanol, metanol, butanol and gasoline. (E0/M0 to E100 or even your M85).

Bigger carbon chain alcohols (specifically Butanol) are desired cause they are drop-in compatible with standard gasoline, needing no adaptations.

Cost is always a factor, and there where no processes to make it economically. If they can change this equation ...


Cold starting E100 Bosch press release...

Tried and tested FlexFuel systems for driving on ethanol
In South America, plant-based ethanol is an important supplement to conventional gasoline. It was for these markets that Bosch developed its FlexFuel system. The system allows four-stroke engines to be run on varying mixtures of gasoline and ethanol – from pure gasoline to pure ethanol (E100). The engine control unit, which is based on the Motronic system developed for port injection, automatically adjusts injection, ignition, and other system parameters to the different ratios of ethanol to gasoline. FlexFuel has been in everyday use for six years now, and is especially popular in passenger cars in Brazil. In 2008, for example, Bosch was able to equip roughly 500,000 vehicles in the country with this innovative system.

Because of its chemical properties, ethanol can adversely affect starting behavior and engine running, especially at low temperatures. For this reason, Bosch has extended its range to include the Flex Start® system. If required, this system's heated rail preheats the fuel, thus allowing trouble-free starting and driving even when outside temperatures are low. In these vehicles, a second fuel system for gasoline is then redundant, as it was only needed for starting.


I am quite convinced that CO2 + H2 to fuels will eventualy not be performed using micro-organisms but via classical chemistry.

Micro-organisms though are very useful to produce complex molecules in relatively low volumes and to produce food.


Thanks for the FFV information. It seems like other countries have addressed the issue, even countries with cold climates. It is odd that we "dry" the ethanol when that may not be necessary if you can run "wet" cellulose E100 . It costs a lot of energy to dry the ethanol.

The comments to this entry are closed.