NREL to Help Create Liquid Diesel from Methane

An advanced research project could help lead to lower greenhouse emission and create a new life for spent gas and oil wells.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)  will help develop microbes that are capable of converting methane found in natural gas into liquid diesel fuel, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower dependence on foreign oil.

The amount of natural gas simply flared or vented from oil wells globally is enormous – equal to one-third of the amount of petroleum used in the United States each year. And every molecule of methane vented to the atmosphere in that process has the global-warming capacity of 12 molecules of carbon dioxide.

A consortium of scientists says that if the wasted gas can be turned into a liquid, then it can be piped along with the petroleum to refineries where it can be turned into diesel suitable for trucks and cars, or even jet fuel for use in planes.

Their proposal – to develop a microbe that eats the methane in the gas – won a $4.8 million Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) award from DOE. First established in 2007, ARPA-E’s mission is to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. ARPA-E’s awardees are unique because they are developing entirely new ways to generate, store, and use energy.

These projects have the potential to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well-being. ARPA-E focuses on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small investment over a defined period of time to quickly catalyze cutting-edge energy research. Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded about 285 projects for a total of approximately $770 million in awards.

“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.”

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. Unfortunately, the enzymes can’t naturally produce enough lipids to make a project economically feasible. So they need some help from genetics. A goal of this project is to genetically engineer that microorganism to both increase the amount of membrane lipids and to get the microorganism to produce non-phosphorous-based lipids that are more readily converted to fuels.

“The direct conversion of methane to diesel has the potential to dramatically increase energy supply while mitigating greenhouse gas impact,” said Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO at LanzaTech. ”We are excited to partner with such a strong team and to have the opportunity to leverage our commercial gas fermentation expertise in this new sector."

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