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Wash U scientists use bacteria to make fuel that could someday replace gasoline

Cultures of bacterial strains belonging to researchers at Washington University that can turn toxic compounds into the precursors of biofuels
Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University researchers are engineering bacteria to create a biofuel that could replace gasoline. These are cultures of bacterial strains that can convert toxic compounds into precursors of biofuels.

In the near future, gasoline could be replaced by a fuel that uses bacteria instead of fossil fuels.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of California-Berkeley are studying a species of bacteria that could be used to manufacture a renewable biofuel. The U.S. Department of Energy gave scientists $3.9 million to fund the research for three years. 

The bacteria, Rhodococcus opacus, was first discovered growing on toxic substances outside of a petroleum plant. The toxic substances R. opacus consumes is related to lignin, a complex type of molecule that's found in many plants. The bacteria converts the plant material into compounds that, with some engineering and chemistry, can be turned into biofuel that can be pumped into existing car technology. 

"You should be able to a hundred percent put that into a modern engine so that it can fully replace old petroleum products," said Gautum Dantas, a Wash U microbiology professor. "In that sense, you don't have to have hybrid engines. You don't have to change the way our cars work right now." 

Dantas is leading one of six laboratories devoted to studying R. opacus as a part of the Department Of Energy grant. He added that the biofuel also has a few advantages over ethanol, which has to be blended with gasoline in order to be used. The bacteria-based biofuel would not compete with the food system and can be used independently of gasoline. 

The day when motorists will be able to pump R. opacus-created biofuel into their cars could come in the next decade, depending on the petroleum market, Dantas said. 

"A technology like this that is in its early stages would require a decade to realize its potential to test and put into a modern engine," Dantas said. "We are still a good five to 10 years away." 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.