Recently, a group of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was able to make jet fuel from bacteria in the genus streptomyces that is commonly found in soil.
In 1999, the American Petroleum Institute (APA) released a report that said the Earth’s oil reserves could run out anytime between 2062 and 2094. In contrast, a 2019 study from Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) says that the world will run out of oil much sooner, in 2054. Imagine a world where there is no oil and so planes can’t fly, jets can’t protect the borders, goods can’t be shipped, and rockets can’t leave Earth.
Since oil is used by the world’s aviation, shipping, and aerospace industries, running out of it could cause chaos everywhere. Forget about oil running out; the lack of oil is already causing fuel prices to rise around the world at a rate that has never been seen before. Recently, gas prices in different US states went over $5 per gallon, which is a new all-time high.
Because of this, many businesses and scientists are always looking for renewable energy sources that could replace oil and other fossil fuels (as it is likely to end foremost). Scientists at the Lawrence lab have taken an essential step in this direction by making jet fuel out of bacteria. When fossil fuels like aviation kerosene (used to power jets and airplanes), gasoline, or diesel are burned, a lot of energy is made. This energy is used to power the engine of a car. One problem with fossil fuels is that they take millions of years to form below the surface of the Earth. The Berkley research team was trying to make a fuel that doesn’t take millions of years to start again.
At that time, Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, got in touch with Pablo Cruz Morales, the lead author of the study and a project scientist at Lawrence lab, and asked him if he and his team could make a molecule called Jawsamycin. Pablo had worked with streptomyces bacteria before, so he knew that Jawsamycin is a molecule that is made naturally by Streptomyces bacteria when they break down food.
Keasling told Pablo that the molecule could release a lot of energy and that “it’s going to be an explosive idea.” After Pablo and his team heard this, they got to work on the idea. In a culture broth with sugars, salts, and some amino acids, they changed the Streptomyces coelicolor bacteria. Then, they took the bacteria out of their bodies, broke them up, and separated the oily parts that had molecules similar to Jawsamycin. They finally decided to make a new kind of biofuel by turning the oils into esters.
Pablo and his colleagues call the molecules that were made in the lab that works like Jawsamycin “fuelimycin.” When IE asked Pablo what the pros and cons of their biofuel were compared to traditional fuel, he said, “Our fuel can be made using renewable processes, while traditional fuels are made from petroleum.” The POP-FAMEs (Ours) can also store more energy, so if they are made on a large scale, they may be more efficient.”
He also said, “The downside is that we still need to find a way to make it on a large scale that is profitable, and it’s hard to compete with fossil fuels because they are subsidized and the global economy is built around them.” But this will change because the climate of our planet is changing, and we need to stop using fossil fuels to slow this down. Natural Jawsamycin is a molecule that is made in the body of streptomyces when it eats sugar or amino acids and turns them into molecules with cyclopropane rings (triangular-shaped three-carbon rings) during digestion.
Researchers say that Jawsamycin is made in a way that is similar to how fat is made in the human body. Still, the difference is made by the high-energy cyclopropane rings. When the body stores too much glucose (a molecule with six carbons) as glycogen, it turns into fat. Three-carbon molecules with a triangular shape take more energy to make than six-carbon molecules. Pablo wrote more about this: “If you have bonds that are at a normal angle, like an open chain of carbons, the carbons can move around and feel comfortable. Let’s say you make them into a ring with six carbons. They can still move and dance a little bit. But the triangle shape causes the bonds to bend, which takes energy to do.
An enzyme called polyketide synthases helps to put together the molecules of Jawsamycin and fuelimycin. Polyketide synthases are multi-enzyme complexes that are similar to fatty acid synthases, which make oily compounds in the bodies of humans and many other organisms. During their study, the researchers found that the high-energy cyclopropane ring is made when the polyketide synthases enzyme does its job.
They think that their biofuel could be used to power jets, planes, and even rocket fuel in the future. However, more research is needed to make this happen. When asked what they planned to do next with their biofuel study, Pablo said, “The next step is to get the bacteria to make more of this product and change it even more so that it can be used for a wider range of things, like ships, rockets, and airplanes.”