www.checkbiotech.org ; www.raupp.info ; www.czu.cz
Genetically modified microorganisms could one day make it easier and cheaper
to produce biofuels, October 2006 by Judy Skatssoon.
A symposium convened by the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science
and Technology in Canberra this week will hear about future directions in
biofuel technology and ways of meeting national biofuel targets.
Speaker Leo Hyde, research and development manager at DuPont Australia, says
improving the yeasts and bacteria that turn raw biomass into fuel is a major
step in reducing the use of fossil fuels.
Hyde says the company is developing bacteria specifically tailored to the
production of butanol.
Like ethanol, butanol can be produced from the sugars contained in cellulose
waste from crops like corn or sugar cane, and even logging waste.
"We have bugs now but they're not efficient enough," he says.
"What we're working on is another bug that we believe will be far more
efficient than the current process [of producing butanol].
"You'd re-engineer it to make the butanol pathway more efficient. We'll
modify pathways, how it uses energy, to improve the yield of the product you
What are the benefits?
Phillip Calais is a renewable energy consultant and former lecturer in
environmental science at Murdoch University, where he's involved in a
He says there are benefits in using genetically modified or GM bugs in the
fermentation of fuels like butanol, which he says is more "oil-like" than
ethanol and mixes better with petrol, but is more difficult to produce.
Butane is made from a raw product that is then broken down to starch or
sugars, fermented and purified.
"With butanol, fermentation has to be very pure. If there are any weird
strains of bacteria it really upsets the fermentation process," he says.
The bugs that are currently used are also destroyed once butanol reaches a
certain concentration, which means more costly and time consuming processing
is needed to purify it after fermentation.
"By using GM you can actually breed up different bugs that can survive a
higher concentration of purity in the butanol," Calais says.
"If you can make it more concentrated in the first place by using better
bugs you can do less processing later."
What about the risks?
The use of GM organisms holds promise for "certain niches", says Adrian Lake
founder and president of the Biodiesel Association of Australia.
But he says the technology is still being developed and has potential risks.
"There's potential danger in changing any bugs," he says.
"If it's an organism that's extremely aggressive and has to be highly
controlled because it will replicate and damage other organisms, that's a
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