Mould can produce jet-fuel-like hydrocarbons, possibly offering a more sustainable way of production of biofuels and chemicals, Manchester University researchers have found.
In an article published in the latest issue of Nature, the team led by Professor David Leys from the university’s Institute of Biotechnology described that when grown on certain substrates, mould can produce kerosene-like hydrocarbons.
In fact, the mould in the study was grown on food items containing the preservative sorbic acid.
The researchers found that the mould used a previously unknown modified form of vitamin B2, now called flavin, or vitamin Q10, to support the production of the hydrocarbons.
"One of the main challenges our society faces is the dwindling level of oil reserves that we not only depend upon for transport fuels, but also plastics, lubricants, and a wide range of petrochemicals,” said Professor Leys.
"Whilst the direct production of fuel compounds by living organisms is an attractive process, it is currently not one that is well understood, and although the potential for large-scale biological hydrocarbon production exists, in its current form it would not support industrial application, let alone provide a valid alternative to fossil fuels."
Leys believes the discovery made by his team could be a game-changer. The researchers studied the processes taking place inside the mould cells on an atomic level and found the chemical synthesis taking place inside the mould organisms is not that different from common chemical synthesis, something that was previously completely unheard of.
"Now that we understand how yeast and other microbes can produce very modest amounts of fuel-like compounds through this modified vitamin B2-dependent process, we are in a much better position to try to improve the yield and nature of the compounds produced," Leys said.
The study focused on the so called alpha-olefins, a high value, industrially crucial intermediate class of hydrocarbons that are key chemical intermediates in a variety of applications, such as flexible and rigid packaging and pipes, synthetic lubricants used in heavy duty motor and gear oils, surfactants, detergents and lubricant additives.
“The insights from this research offer the possibility of circumventing current industrial processes which are reliant on scarce natural resources,” Professor Leys concluded.