Scientists modify bacteria, make it produce propane

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Propane is a gaseous fuel that is used widely throughout the world. As a fuel, propane has numerous benefits; it is easy to store, has a high calorific value, condenses easier than similar fuels, and already sees several applications throughout the world. The negative point, of course, is that propane is extracted from the very limited supply of fossil fuels, and as we know it, propane is a non-renewable energy source.

Researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Turku in Finland have apparently taken care of the “non-renewable” part. Scientists have engineered the harmless gut bacteria, E. coli to produce propane. As its general function, the E. coli breaks down fatty acids to cell membranes. Researchers changed this process a bit by the addition of enzymes and prodded the E. coli to convert the fatty acid into propane instead.

The process points towards the production of a renewable fuel using a biological host, and may come in handy since the propane produced by this method is viable and easily accessed. More often than not, fuel processed by biological sources is difficult to harvest, and may present quite a problem in terms of refining and obtaining the fuel, as the process tends to be complicated and investment intensive. Using the engineered Escherichia coli makes the fuel easier to access and may produce viable benefits.

Researchers say the process is in its early stages of development, and the present finding serves only as a proof of concept. The ultimate goal of the researchers is to use this engineered system with photosynthesis, so propane could directly be produced from solar energy. That of course is some time off at the moment, considering E. coli does not employ photosynthesis. Success in that would however, make the fuel way more desirable and accessible.

To my mind, this process does pose an interesting question. We are still essentially using a hydrocarbon. A renewable one of course, but a fuel that burns and leaves behind the troubles that come with burning hydrocarbons. And then I tell myself to lighten up, the research is still ongoing, and we may very well see excellent benefits from the finished product.