Better than ethanol? Butanol the fuel of the future?

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URBANA, Ill. – A bacterium found in soil, could be the key to the next petroleum-free fuel.

Under a microscope Clostridium beijerinckii looks like a rather docile cheese curl, but when added to a vat of corn processing byproducts, it becomes an active agent eating its way through the goop.

This fermentation process results in the alcohol, butanol.

Backed by heavy hitters. Hans Blaschek, microbiologist in the University of Illinois, has been studying Clostridium beijerinckii, or the “bug” as he calls it, for more than 20 years.

His work has just taken a giant leap forward.

Blaschek’s bug has been selected for genome mapping by the Department of Energy at the same time that Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur has agreed to build a life-sized reactor based on a design developed on a small scale in Blaschek’s lab.

ADM has a one-year agreement to build the reactor and first rights to develop butanol as a product to the public.

Better than ethanol? Blaschek explains that what yeast is to the process used to create ethanol, Clostridium beijerinckii is to the process that results in butanol.

“But butanol is better than ethanol,” Blaschek said. “It is has a higher energy content and a lower solubility with water than ethanol does – therefore it can be stored under humid conditions and it can be used in internal combustion and diesel engines.”

Patented. One result of Blaschek’s earlier research, is that the University of Illinois holds the patent on a strain of the bacterium, genetically modified to improve productivity.

Since this microbe was selected for gene mapping, U of I will supply the DNA and Blaschek will also get first crack at analyzing the genome as it is being mapped.

‘Chokes itself.’ “Right now, as it eats the starchy material, the bacteria actually chokes on its own product,” Blaschek said.

It destroys itself, as if a burning fire could produce water and put itself out.

“When we can look at all of the genes at once, we’ll be able to select for the attribute we want,” he said. “We want to create a Clostridium that will keep going, rather than dying out.”

Lots of corn. When a more economical processing of butanol can be developed, Blaschek said there will be a non-food market of as much as 400 million additional bushels of corn per year.

Eventually, this could become a replacement for our dependency on petroleum fuel.

Leftovers. Bioproducts is another aspect of the project that Blaschek intends to study.

When ethanol is produced, there is a sludge-like leftover from the yeast at the bottom of the tank that has to be dumped.

With the knowledge from the genome map of Clostridium, Blaschek hopes to be able to modify the bug so that there are no leftovers that require disposal.

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