NREL dives into methane to fuel study

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The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is attempting to develop microbes that convert methane found in natural gas into liquid diesel fuel, using a $4.8 million Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) award.

"We'll be leveraging our decades of experience in producing biofuels and lipids, which in the past we've typically done via algae," said Phil Pienkos, NREL's principle investigator on the liquid to diesel project. "Here, we'll be applying it to a brand new feedstock, natural gas, which is recognized as being critically important to the United States."

If successful, the approach could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower dependence on foreign oil.

Every molecule of methane vented to the atmosphere from natural gas flared or vented from oil wells has the global-warming capacity of 12 molecules of carbon dioxide.

If the wasted gas can be turned into a liquid, it can be piped along with the petroleum to refineries where it can be turned into diesel.

The University of Washington will genetically modify the microbes. NREL will demonstrate through fermentation the productivity of the microbes, both natural and genetically-modified, as well as extract the lipids from the organisms and analyze the plan's economic potential. UK-based Johnson-Matthey will produce the catalysts that turn the lipids in the methane into fuel. If successful, Illinois-based Lanza Tech, a pioneer in waste-to-fuels technology, will take the bench-scale plan to the commercial level.

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. The enzymes cannot naturally produce enough lipids to make a project economically feasible so they must be genetically engineered to increase the amount of membrane lipids and 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 -- good feedstock for a refinery.

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