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Clients in the News – University of Texas Engineers Convert Yeast Cells into ‘Sweet Crude’ Biofuel

Left: Starting cells with around 15 percent lipid content. Right: Engineered cells with nearly 90 percent lipid content.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering have developed a new source of renewable energy, a biofuel, from genetically engineered yeast cells and ordinary table sugar. This yeast produces oils and fats, known as lipids, that can be used in place of petroleum-derived products.

Assistant professor Hal Alper, in the Cockrell School’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, along with his team of students, created the new cell-based platform. Given that the yeast cells grow on sugars, Alper calls the biofuel produced by this process “a renewable version of sweet crude.”

The researchers’ platform produces the highest concentration of oils and fats reported through fermentation, the process of culturing cells to convert sugar into products such as alcohol, gases or acids. This work was published in Nature Communications on Jan. 20.

The UT Austin research team was able to rewire yeast cells to enable up to 90 percent of the cell mass to become lipids, which can then be used to produce biodiesel.

“To put this in perspective, this lipid value is approaching the concentration seen in many industrial biochemical processes,” Alper said. “You can take the lipids formed and theoretically use it to power a car.”

Since fatty materials are building blocks for many household products, this process could be used to produce a variety of items made with petroleum or oils — from nylon to nutrition supplements to fuels. Biofuels and chemicals produced from living organisms represent a promising portion of the renewable energy market. Overall, the global biofuels market is expected to double during the next several years, going from $82.7 billion in 2011 to $185.3 billion in 2021.

“We took a starting yeast strain of Yarrowia lipolytica, and we’ve been able to convert it into a factory for oil directly from sugar,” Alper said. “This work opens up a new platform for a renewable energy and chemical source.”

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