Research by scientists at Imperial College London suggests that genetic engineering of bacteria could facilitate the production of propane on a commercial scale, potentially opening up new ways of creating biofuels outside of agriculture, giving hope to those seeking alternatives to fossil fuels. Joel Flynn went to the laboratory to meet them.
Whether you're a climate change believer or a sceptic, you're unlikely to deny the need to find new types of fuel. But while many might herald new ways of producing electricity, researchers at Imperial College London say they've found a different source of power - bacteria. Dr Patrik Jones and his team have genetically engineered E-coli, a common bacteria found in the gut. He says changing the metabolism in the cells can produce propane. SOUNDBITE: Imperial College Senior Lecturer in Industrial Biotechnology, Patrik Jones, saying (English): "Once you've optimised that system and get those different components to work together, then we can observe an impact on the metabolism, which is the production of propane." Bacteria can naturally produce energy sources like methane and natural gas. But the advantage of propane is storing it - liquified propane takes up far less space for the energy it provides. Jones is excited by something else though - the prospect of moving his team's genetic engineering into cyanobacteria, using cells that feed on sunlight. SOUNDBITE: Imperial College Senior Lecturer in Industrial Biotechnology, Patrik Jones, saying (English): "The nice thing with moving it into cyanobacteria is you then can utilise the fact that they harvest solar energy and use that to produce chemical energy. We can then tap into that chemical energy that it generates and divert that into a fuel instead of a biomass." Research is currently at the conceptual stage. Jones estimates they need to improve the process by up to 10,000 percent before they can start interesting industry. But if they're right, the way we've been making a fuel of the future could soon be a thing of the past.