Sandia National Laboratories Trying to Convert Natural Gas into Liquid Fuel


Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories will use their expertise in protein expression, enzyme engineering and high-throughput assays as part of a multi-project, $34 million effort by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) aimed at developing advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation.

According to Sandia, the ARPA-E program is called ‘Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy’ and involves 15 different projects. Sandia says its endeavor is part of a two-year award led by MOgene Green Chemicals, a wholly owned subsidiary of St. Louis-based MOgene LC, and will work toward sunlight-assisted conversion of methane to butanol.

The broad goal, Sandia reports, is to develop another source of energy in the U.S. that does not have to be imported and could lead to lower carbon monoxide emissions than conventional fossil fuels.

Using enzyme engineering and other capabilities, Sandia says it will work to engineer pathways from methanotroph organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol. Methanotrophs are microbes that can metabolize methane.

‘There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past, since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and survive and multiply off of natural gas metabolism,’ comments Sandia's Blake Simmons. ‘The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do.

‘What we and others are doing is looking at the core metabolism of these microbes,’ Simmons adds. ‘Then, we can either engineer it to make it faster in native organisms, or we can take the metabolism out of those organisms and put it in something more industrially relevant.’

Currently, there are no proven biological methods for converting gaseous inputs such as natural gas into butanol, Sandia notes.

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