urrently made most often from petroleum and natural gas, ethylene is used in the manufacture of plastics and polyester, and ranks as the largest petrochemical produced by volume around the world. But the process of making ethylene requires considerable amounts of energy and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Researchers in Japan in the late 1990s discovered a blue-green alga, Synechococcus sp. PCC 7942, could be modified to produce ethylene via photosynthesis by the introduction of the gene that codes for an ethylene-forming enzyme, or EFE. But that strain ran into problems as the amount of ethylene produced declined over time and, by the fourth generation of the cyanobacterium production, stopped entirely.
Building on that research, Dr. Jianping Yu, a research scientist in the Photobiology Group at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, turned his attention to a different cyanobacterium, Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. Dr. Yu, who joined NREL in 2005, earned his doctorate from Michigan State University for his research into that strain.
Ethylene already can be made without fossil fuels through the conversion of bioethanol, but that requires making bioethanol plus an additional step. Dr. Yu’s research showed ethylene could be made directly and continuously from cyanobacterium.
Normally, algae convert carbon dioxide during photosynthesis into biomass or sugars. But Dr. Yu’s method redirected the cyanobacterium to use a portion of the CO2 to produce ethylene. Ethylene rises to fill the headspace of a sealed glass tube or photobioreactor and can be easily captured.
Since his initial discovery in 2010, Dr. Yu has managed to increase the amount of ethylene produced in the laboratory by more than a thousand-fold, to 35 milligrams per liter per hour. His goal is to reach 50 milligrams by the end of the year.
“The strain has been improved so much that at least 10 percent of fixed carbon has become ethylene,” Dr. Yu said. “Maybe more. We demonstrate 10 percent. We do have newer strains that we haven’t analyzed yet.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Dr. Yu has been able to keep the cyanobacterium producing ethylene even as the organism itself continues to grow.
“There’s an observation that despite the amount of CO2 the organism is turning into ethylene, which is substantial compared to the amount that it’s turning into cells, there’s no impact on the growth rate of the organism,” said Dr. Philip Pienkos, principal manager of the Bioprocess R&D Group in NREL’s National Bioenergy Center.
“There are inherent inefficiencies in photosynthesis that limit the growth rate of any photosynthetic organism. But this bug is able to crank out a lot of product in addition to biomass. It’s making ethylene and it doesn’t affect its ability to grow. It’s somehow correcting or overcoming some of that inherent inefficiency in photosynthesis. This is a totally unexpected observation that could have huge implications.”
NREL has applied for a patent on the photosynthetic ethylene process. Dr. Yu, who had the help of post-doctoral researcher Wei Xiong for two years and now works with another post-doc, Bo Wang, has twice had his ethylene project pass muster by a peer-review committee at the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. Members of the committee noted Dr. Yu’s “remarkable progress” and his “innovative take on producing algal fuel co-products.”
But some also questioned the economics. Ethylene made from petrochemicals costs between $600 and $1,300 a ton, while the cost to produce ethylene from cyanobacterium has been estimated at $3,240 a ton. The key benefit to making bio-ethylene would be in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the traditional ethylene manufacturing process. Making ethylene from fossil fuels generates between 1.5 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ethylene; the bio-ethylene process removes 3.14 tons per ton of ethylene.
Dr. Yu said he doesn’t know the percentage of ethylene he’ll have to produce from photosynthesis before a company will want to license the method. But he knows companies are taking note of the research, which has been published in the journals Energy & Environmental Science, Biotechnology for Biofuels, Metabolic Engineering, and Nature Plants and verified by scientists at Cornell University.