Making jet fuel from seawater

Researchers from The University of Manchester in England are exploring a new way to produce the next generation of bio-based jet fuels using seawater.

Scientists have discovered that a bacteria species called Halomonas, which grows in seawater, provides a viable “microbial chassis” that can be engineered to make high value compounds. This in turn means products like bio-based jet fuel could be made economically using production methods similar to those in the brewery industry and using renewable resources such as seawater and sugar, according to researchers.

Could this be the new source of aviation fuel?

The breakthrough behind this approach is the ability to re-engineer the microbe’s genome to change its metabolism and create different types of chemical compounds that could be renewable alternatives to crude oil. Dr. Benjamin Harvey and his team of researchers at the Office of Naval Research Global (ONR) in China Lake, California, have pioneered this work on converting biological precursors to relevant jet fuels.

The Manchester research group, led by Professor Nigel Scrutton, director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), is following on this research.

“Effective biofuels strategies require the economic production of fuels derived from a robust microbial host on a very large scale — usually cultivated on renewable waste biomass or industrial waste streams — but also with minimal downstream processing and avoids use of fresh water,” Scrutton said. “With Halomonas these requirements can be met, minimizing capital and operational costs in the production of these next generation biofuels.”

This research could be groundbreaking news for the wider biofuels industry, according to the researchers.

“In the case of the jet fuel intermediates we are bio-producing, they are chemically identical to petrochemical derived molecules, and will be able to drop-in to processes developed at China Lake,” added Dr Kirk Malone, Director of Commercialization at  The University of Manchester’s MIB.

Unlike the biofuels we know today, which are dependent on agricultural land to produce corn and sugar beets, bio-production in seawater would avoid ethical concerns of “fuel vs food,” according to Malone.

“Moreover, the final products would be identical to today’s fuels, allowing automobiles to maintain the same high performance standards without having to redesign the engine to consume lower quality fuels,” the researchers note.

Reducing environmental impact

Although the chemical industry has improved its chemical synthesis processes during the past century, there are environmental and economic concerns to the way chemistry is still performed. Engineering bacteria to replicate the same processes can be significantly more sustainable, reduce waste streams, limits the production of toxic byproducts, and is not dependent on non-sustainable resources such as crude oil, according to the researchers.

“What is unique about this platform developed by The University of Manchester group is that the bacteria grow in seawater,” officials noted in a prepared release. “The management of the system and its durability are also game changers, with a very long life span for continuous production.”

“Biotechnology allows us to harness the exquisite selectivity of nature to efficiently produce complex chemicals, often using temperatures and pressures lower than in traditional organic synthesis. This can result in fewer by-products and contaminants (i.e. trace metals from catalysts), thereby simplifying purification and lowering costs,” added Malone.