Energy Dept. Funds UW Project to
Turn Wasted Natural Gas Into Diesel
12/13/2012 - University of Washington - The U.S.
Department of Energy this month awarded a group led by the
University of Washington $4 million to develop bacteria that can
turn the methane in natural gas into diesel fuel for transportation.
"The product that we’re shooting for will have the same fuel
characteristics as diesel," said principal investigator Mary
Lidstrom, a UW professor of chemical engineering and microbiology.
"It can be used in trucks, boats, buses, cars, tractors – anything
that diesel does now."
Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, selected the
UW-led project in its second major funding round that awarded 66
grants to U.S. universities, businesses and national labs.
Energy Department launched the agency in 2009 to support high-risk,
potentially transformative energy research projects.
The UW engineers will work with scientists at the National Renewable
Energy Lab and two industry partners.
They will target the natural
gas associated with oil fields, which is often flared off as waste,
as well as so-called "stranded" natural gas reserves that are too
small for a pipeline to be economically viable.
The team aims to capture that natural gas and use bacteria to turn
its main component, methane, into a liquid fuel for transportation.
"The goal at the end of three years is to have an integrated process
that will be ready for pre-commercialization pilot testing,"
The four project partners have distinct roles. First, the UW team
will develop a version of the bacteria that is even better at
converting methane to energy-rich fatlike molecules.
a New Zealand-based biofuels company, will develop a way to grow the
new bacteria in larger quantities at high efficiency.
Next the U.S.
National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., will devise an
efficient way to extract the energy-rich molecules from the
Finally, partners at Johnson Matthey, a U.K.
chemical company, will use chemical catalysts to convert those
molecules into diesel.
After establishing a viable method, national lab scientists will
work with the industry partners to develop an economic model that
predicts manufacturing costs as production scales up.
The bacterium at the center of the effort comes from an alkaline
salty lake near Mongolia.
Team member Marina Kalyuzhnaya, a UW
research associate professor in microbiology, discovered it during
her graduate studies in Russia.
The microbe can survive in harsh
environments, consumes methane and uses it to build cells containing
At the UW, the microbe has been evolved to grow
unusually fast, making it practical for industrial applications.
Other members of the UW team are research assistant professor David
Beck and senior research scientist Ludmila Chistoserdova, both in
The grant starts in February and lasts three
years, with project milestones due every quarter.
"It’s exciting," Lidstrom said. "We have to hit the ground running.
It’s very ambitious but we believe this team is strong enough, and
we know enough about what needs to be done that we will achieve our