What if you could create energy out of thin air and cut down on the carbon buildup in the atmosphere at the same time?
It sounds like a win-win situation, and the stuff of science fiction.
But a discovery by researchers at the University of Georgia may lead to a way to eventually do that very thing.
UGA says its researchers have found a way to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into products that have industrial usefulness. The hope is that this discovery will help pave the way toward creating biofuels literally out of thin air.
“Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do — absorb it and generate something useful,” said Michael Adams, a member of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
Carbon in the atmosphere is one of the major culprits in climate change. By trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere, the planet gets warmer and the added energy results in wider swings in weather events.
While climate change is a natural phenomenon, the best evidence is that the burning of fossil fuels is speeding up the process. From a practical standpoint, few are willing to make the drastic lifestyle changes that would be necessary to appreciably reduce the impact people have on this change. In fact, as nations such as India and China gain wealth and the overall world population grows, it’s inevitable that more carbon will find its way into the atmosphere.
And that makes this discovery all the more exciting.
Carbon dioxide in the air long has been a source of energy. Plants use sunlight to take water and carbon dioxide and transform them into sugars that plants use for energy. While those sugars can be fermented and transformed into biofuels, the process of getting the potential fuel from the cells of the plants is difficult to do efficiently.
“What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman,” Adams said. “We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”
Adams was co-author of the study detailing the researchers’ results that was published Monday in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. The research was supported by the Department of Energy as part of the Electrofuels Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
According to UGA officials, a unique microorganism — Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball” — makes the concept possible. The organism normally feeds on carbohydrates in super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents, but the researchers manipulated the organism’s genetics to create a type that can feed on carbon dioxide at lower temperatures and then use hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction that incorporates the carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical used to make acrylics and many other products.
The UGA researchers think they can further manipulate the genetics of the new Pyrococcus furiosus strain to generate other industrial products — including fuel. Most importantly, when that fuel is burned, it will only release the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere that was used to make it. That means that unlike gas, coal and oil, no additional carbon buildup in the atmosphere would come from the use of this new biofuel.
A carbon-neutral fuel wouldn’t reduce the amount of carbon that is already in the atmosphere, but it would slow the rate of growth and set a new standard for providing clean energy. And that would be a big step in the right direction.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board