Airplanes powered by bacteria

Sarah Manmiller (1 PM Micro) wants to help us save the planet. She found this via the BigThink website. My first exposure to the idea of biofuels was actually via the radio program CarTalk, and a caller on that show surprised even Click and Clack, who found the idea of exhaust smelling like french fries astounding but yummy. Here is Sarah’s summary:

This week the United States domestic airline industry will be utilizing a new environmentally-friendly biofuel to power commercial flights. On Monday the 7th, United Airlines successfully launched the first biofuel-powered commercial flight. Today the 9th, Alaska Airlines launched the first out of a 75 plane fleet that runs on a 20% biofuel blend from recycled cooking oil. Although this is a huge step in becoming environmentally friendly, the biofuel for these planes costs almost six times the cost of regular jet fuel. So, what’s the next step for scientists?

They believe that a way to create cheap biofuels to use in the airline transportation industry may be possible through synthetic biology. This could mean re-engineering E. coli to become a source of reliable, eco-friendly, cost-effective biofuel. The spark ignited 18 months ago  when scientists at J. Craig Venter Institute created the first synthetic cell. This opens the door to creating synthetic life forms from scratch and re-engineer DNA down to the cellular level. The possibility of genetically altering the DNA of bacteria has laid out plans to possibly utilize those bacteria to cure cancerous tumors, grow organs, and much more. The prime interest of the airline companies however, is using E. coli bacteria that are able to transform sugar into diesel and jet fuel. Jay Keasling has already demonstrated that it is possible to create “drop-in” fuels created by bacteria that use existing infrastructure and transform it into the same type of jet fuel that is used currently.

Although this technology may be useful and better for the environment, cost will always be the dependent factor on what source of fuel is used. Companies are trying to invest and move towards the use of biofuels, but only time can tell. Boeing has developed an industry-wide 1% biofuel goal for the year 2015 and the U.S. Navy has invested approximately $500 million towards new biofuel R&D efforts. Among the previous airlines mentioned, seven airlines total are experimenting with the use of alternative biofuel-powered commercial flights. So far, this technology has opened a broad span of experiments aimed towards helping human kind, but there will always be someone trying to use this technology out of greed. If efforts are successful in utilizing E. coli as a biofuel, the estimated 2% of the world’s carbon emissions caused by the aviation industry may be eliminated.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on November 13, 2011, in Guest Post, Strange but True. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Airplanes powered by bacteria.

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