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UW-led group awarded $4 million to convert natural gas into diesel fuel

UW-led group awarded $4 million to convert natural gas into diesel fuel

UW-led group awarded $4 million to convert natural gas into diesel fuel -

Research tech Nicole Smalley, research scientist Andrew Lamb, principal investigator Mary Lidstrom and research associate professor Marina Kalyuzhnaya display their bacteria fermenting machines working on converting methane into diesel.

Photo by Sang Cho

A UW-led research group may soon play a major role in reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil and greenhouse gases, thanks to a $4 million award in early January from a government research agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The group is composed of four partners and several UW graduate and undergraduate students, working on a project to develop a genetically-modified microbe that will transform methane, the main component in natural gas, into liquid fuel for transportation. 

Mary Lidstrom, a UW professor in engineering and microbiology who is the lead investigator in the group’s research, said the project aims to take advantage of natural gas which is currently plentiful in the United States, but often goes to waste when quantities are small.  

“The target that we have for the natural gas sources are those that aren’t large enough to be piped into a pipeline,” Lidstrom said. “So rather than waste that whole source of energy, what we’re proposing to do is develop an engineered process that will be able to take advantage of those small sources.”  

The idea for this research came about three years ago. Before being accepted by ARPA-E, the group tried several times to receive funding from other sources. The UW award was one of 66 funding opportunities offered by ARPA-E, and the group was chosen from more than 4,000 applicants.

The award is not a grant, but a cooperative agreement between the UW and ARPA-E, which is based on a detailed contract with specific milestones and timelines which will be actively managed by ARPA-E. 

Although Lidstrom said this contract limits the research group in a way that a grant would not, in this case, the strict guidelines will likely work in their favor.

“It’s very focused on achieving this goal to commercialization,” Lidstrom said. “So I like it in a situation like this, where the goal is to create, at the end, something that can be used for commercialization.”

Lindstrom said the group’s research has the potential to decrease greenhouse gases, if successful. 

“Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2,” Lidstrom said. “So we expect that we will actually have less methane going into the atmosphere by capturing it with these bacteria.” 

Marina Kalyuzhnaya, a team member and UW research assistant professor in microbiology, said most natural gas is currently used to produce heat, rather than fuel. She said the process could potentially be used to convert methane found in animal waste into fuel.

“To turn this [natural gas] into biofuel, you need a very expensive large scale chemical process,” she said. “This process is efficient only at a very large scale.”

The ARPA-E was created in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Energy to offer funding to scientists to pursue especially promising research. Some of the agency’s work involves developing microbes that convert methane found in natural gas into diesel fuel suitable for use in vehicles. 

“[ARPA-E’s] mission is to identify and fund transformative energy technologies to enhance energy security in the United States, and also to keep the U.S. in the lead in the field of energy technology,” said Dr. Pramod Khargonekar, deputy director for technology at ARPA-E.

According to Khargonekar, the UW project was chosen for its potential to transform foreign petrol usage in the United States, among other potential benefits.

“This can have a dramatic impact on the transportation fuel area and reduce [the United States’] reliance on imports for oil,” Khargonekar said. “This great promise and possibility that this would lead to a huge advance in conversion of natural gas to diesel is the main reason why we funded this project.”

The UW group will lead this research while working with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) along with two other institutions. 

“There is a really tremendous opportunity right now to get this to work,” Lidstrom said. “We have great partners and we’re really grateful that ARPA-E was willing to invest in us.” 

Reach reporter Ola Wietecha at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @OWietecha

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