Inspired by the process that powers all life on Earth, researchers at Glasgow University aim to harness photo- synthetic bacteria to create a hydrocarbon substance similar to petrol.
As well as being renewable, the new “fossil fuel” would be storable. It could be pumped underground for use when needed, cutting reliance on dwindling reserves of coal, oil and gas that took millions of years to form. Greenhouse gas emissions would also be reduced as a result of using carbon dioxide to create the fuel.
“The bacteria will take in power, plus carbon dioxide and water, to create an oil-type fuel that can be made into petrol and used in ordinary combustion engines,” said Professor Richard Cogdell, joint project leader and director of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology.
“Emissions will be re-absorbed and used to make more fuel. If you didn’t want to make the fuel to burn, it could instead be stored – you could pipe it back into the ground, fill up the oil wells. It is all about storing electricity in the form of chemical bonds.”
Cogdell explained that photosynthesis is the only major process on the planet that is able to take solar energy and use it to make a fuel.
He said: “In natural photosynthesis that fuel is carbohydrate, and ultimately that provides all the food – not only for the plants but also for us.
“So the whole of life on Earth is powered by photosynthesis and as a by-product it splits water and makes oxygen, which provides all the oxygen we breathe.
“As a further by-product, excess photosynthesis millions of years in the past has been stored as fossil fuels.
“We are essentially now burning the products of photosynthesis millions of years ago.
“Everything would be ok if it wasn’t for the fact that we are now producing more carbon dioxide than the plants can take back in again.
“The concentration in the atmosphere has been rising to historic levels in recent times, and this is having drastic environmental effects such as climate change.”
Initially the researchers plan to use surplus renewable electricity from wind or solar schemes to spark the reaction, shortcutting the energy-harvesting stage of the process.
“By tapping in earlier you can have much smaller requirements for surface area in order to harvest either solar energy or windmills,” he said.
Cogdell and colleague Prof Lee Cronin, regius chair of chemistry at the university, have now begun searching for the ideal bacteria species to carry out the process.
Once a suitable strain has been selected they will use genetic engineering to “tweak” it for optimum performance.
Cogdell is keen to stress the organisms would not be harmful. “These are naturally occurring, non-toxic, non- pathogenic bacteria, so there would be no risk from them.”
The project is still largely at the concept stage so there is no way of knowing the cost of generating this kind of fuel.
Scotland’s former chief scientific officer and Glasgow University vice-principal Prof Muffy Calder says the work could have “vital importance”.
She said: “Artificial photosynthesis and solar fuels are tremendously exciting developments, with real potential to change how we generate, store and consume energy.
“They could help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and thus decrease carbon emissions and slow the progress of global climate change.”