What if you could make biofuels without using plants? Or oil without extracting anything from the ground? That’s been the goal of the U.S. Department of Energy’s “electrofuels” program, a $48 million research effort involving 14 separate projects that is wrapping up this year.
Instead of relying on corn, sugar cane, or other plants to collect the sun’s energy, electrofuels researchers use microorganisms.
And instead of harvesting plants and other biomass and converting them into biofuels like ethanol, electrofuels researchers are genetically engineering microorganisms that, as one researcher put it, “poop out” chemicals that can burn directly in your gas tank.
“That’s exactly what they do,” said Eric Toone, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who is now back at Duke University in North Carolina, after spending two years helping to administer the U.S. Department of Energy’s four-year-old ARPA-e program. (See related: “Storage, Biofuel Lead $156 Million in Energy Research Grants.”)
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, modeled after the Pentagon’s long-running Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program to support innovative military systems research, is an effort to inject support into “high-risk, high-payoff” research on energy. The fledgling research into electrofuels, which the agency says offers the possibility of generating alternative transportation fuels ten times more efficiently than current biofuel production methods, was a perfect fit for ARPA-e. (See related: “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Biofuels.”)
“It’s the first fundamentally new way to think about biofuels in a long time,” Toone said.