4 Juni 2008

Engineered Bacterium Increases Butanol Production

KAIST, GS Caltex Jointly Develop New Bacteria to Produce Biobutanol

KAIST and GS Caltex, Korea’s second-largest refiner, have jointly developed a new strain of bacteria to produce biobutanol, which is regarded as a promising next-generation biofuel, KAIST authorities said on Monday (June 2).

A research team led by Prof. Sang-Yup Lee of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and researchers of GS Caltex succeeded in developing an improved strain of bacteria which enables to produce a large amount of biobutanol in the process of fermenting biomass. The research team has applied for international patent for the new technology.

Biomass refers to living and recently dead biological material that can be used as fuel or for industrial production. It usually refers to plant matter grown for use as biofuel, but it also includes plant or animal matter used for production of fibers, chemicals or heat.

In the 1970s and 1980s when scientists began researching the possibilities of alternative fuels, bacteria were used in the process of fermenting biomass. This ABE (acetone, butanol, ethanol) fermentation process yields butanol, acetone, and ethanol in a ratio of 6:3:1, respectively. Acetone produced in this process is not usable.

The newly developed technology to produce biobutanol has an advantage of lowering production cost by eliminating the process to separate acetone from butanol. This has been made possible by improving the bacteria used for the fermentation in metabolic engineering terms, and producing butanol and ethanol only in a ratio of 6:1, while curbing the generation of acetone.

In comparison with bioethanol, also a biofuel mixture which is currently under widespread use in some countries, butanol is more easily transported with gasoline and diesel through pipelines because of its lower tendency to separate from the fuel when contaminated with water. Butanol is also less corrosive than ethanol, another reason its transport through pipeline is preferable.

Global interest in full utilization of biomass and development of other alternative energy including biobutanol has deepened in recent years, as crude oil prices have skyrocketed to record levels and climate changes resulting from the excessive use of fossil fuel have been causing various problems around the world.

Source: KAIST, press release, 2008-06-04.

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