An outdated fermentation process once used to turn starch into explosives can now be used to produce renewable diesel fuel to replace the fossil fuels now used in transportation, University of California, Berkeley, scientists have discovered.

lab workerA team of campus chemists and chemical engineers have produced diesel fuel from the products of a bacterial fermentation process discovered nearly 100 years ago by the first president of Israel, chemist Chaim Weizmann. The retooled process produces a mix of products that contain more energy per gallon than the ethanol used in transportation fuels today. It’s estimated that the fuel process could be commercialized within 5-10 years.

While the cost of the fuel created via this process is still higher than diesel or gasoline made from fossil fuels, the scientists state that the process drastically reduces the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

“What I am really excited about is that this is a fundamentally different way of taking feedstocks – sugar or starch – and making all sorts of renewable things, from fuels to commodity chemicals like plastics,” said Dean Toste, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and co-author of a report on the new development that will appear in the Nov. 8 issue of the journal Nature.

The work by Toste, coauthors Harvey Blanch and Douglas Clark, UC Berkeley professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and their colleagues was supported by the Energy Biosciences Institute, a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and funded by the energy firm BP.

Clark noted that diesel produced via this process could initially supply niche markets, such as the military, but that renewable fuel standards in states such as California will eventually make biologically produced diesel financially viable, especially for trucks, trains and other vehicles that need more power than battery alternatives can provide.

source: UC Berkeley Newsroom