College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Animal & Avian Sciences

Bacteria can produce fuel, University of Maryland researchers discover

Professor Richard Kohn sits next to his gas chromatograph machine.
Photo Credit: 
Josh Loock/The Diamondback

Researchers at the University of Maryland found a new method to produce fuel — not from fossils or corn, but from bacteria. Richard Kohn, an animal and avian sciences professor, along with Seon-Woo Kim, a faculty research assistant, developed a more efficient process to produce biofuels, or energy sources that come from living things. 

They published their findings Oct. 7 in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Kohn’s preliminary work began in 2008 with the goal of applying the laws of thermodynamics to the fermentation process, and he and Kim have since used the method to produce fuels, such as ethanol and butanol.

From an environmental standpoint, this research could help decrease dependence on fossil fuels, Kohn said, and could lead to future methods of producing fuel out of organic matter.

“We could find bacteria that takes waste material, like cattle manure, and convert it into fuel,” Kohn said. “Or we could take carbon dioxide and hydrogen and turn it into fuel. We can’t make energy, but we can make a conversion of things that have energy to a type of energy we can use.”

David Dodds, president of the chemical consulting firm Dodds & Associates, said he admired Kohn’s research and that biofuels should be embraced as much as possible in the future.

“I applaud what he’s doing, and keeping track of the thermodynamics is something everyone needs to do,” Dodds said. “He has some novel processes that could be useful.”

Biofuels can also serve as a way around carbon dioxide emission caps in countries such as China, Dodds said. 

Finding new effective and sustainable methods to generate energy are essential, and Kohn’s research is one innovative approach to the problem, Dodds said. 

Paul Weimer, a research microbiologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department who was not involved with the study, said Kohn’s research is well ahead of the curve. Kohn’s work on changing the conditions of fermentation has allowed him to create end products, such as hydrocarbons, that Weimer said he did not even think were possible from that process.

Still, Weimer said the research needs many more scientists looking at its potential applications before it can have a substantial impact on biofuel production. 

“Right now, unless people take a look at what he’s done and start working on it, I’m not sure it’s going to be applied,” Weimer said. “If they do, it holds tremendous promise.”

Kohn acknowledged that most of his findings were theoretical in nature and need further research to develop industrial uses. 

He said he will apply for funding from the U.S. Energy Department for further research on the process.

Applying the laws of thermodynamics to biology is a concept that Kohn said is so simplistic it seems almost too good to be true. 

“It’s really very useful,” Kohn said. “People are very slowly becoming interested in it, and it really makes a very complicated system much more simple.”

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