Many research efforts have sought to turn garbage into gold – black gold, to use a historic folk term. Now, a team of scientists from MIT working with China has discovered a way to convert gaseous emissions from power stations, steel mills and garbage dumps into liquid fuels using engineered microbes.
A plant in Shanghai is part of a successful pilot program for the technology, which yields so-called “syngas” that can be used for biofuels. China is currently building another larger plant that will demonstrate whether the processes can be scaled up for higher levels of production.
In Europe many such plants actually burn the emissions to create electricity, but team leader Gregory Stephanopoulos argues that such practices are wasteful and costly, requiring subsidies. Creating new liquid fuels from the emissions is significantly more cost-effective and can be used to replace gasoline and diesel for transportation vehicles.
Additionally the technology can offer a new source of biofuel (referred to as a “feedstock”) that doesn’t rely on agricultural resources, which can divert crops from food supply needs and drive up food prices.
The MIT technique relies on bacteria to transform the waste gases into acetic acid (vinegar), and then adds a specialized yeast that assists in yielding the oil. MIT owns the patents and has licensed the technology to GTL Biofuels Inc. The company’s plant outside Shanghai successfully piloted the technique beginning in September 2015. Now the question is how easily it can scale to larger quantities and achieve the economies required for volume fuel production. GTL is set to begin construction on what it calls a “semi-commercial” demonstration plant 20 times the size of the original.