The Latest Substitute for Fossils

To many of us, ‘Bacteria’ is synonymous with diseases. But how many of us know that without them our body cannot absorb certain essential nutrients? The bacterium under study here is E. coli (Escherichia coli) commonly called the gut bacteria. The benefits of this particular bacterium are immense to the human body in that, it provides us not only with protection against other harmful bacterium strains but also helps us in our very sustenance.

Recently another benefit of this bacterium has been identified which leads to its categorization as a source of green energy. With our fossil resources dwindling, the need for alternate sources of energy is of high priority. While solar, the wind and hydroelectric energy are the most common choices, their use isn’t as pervasive as it should be. Our stock of fossil fuels, which currently helps us meet the majority of our energy demand, is finite. With the demand for energy growing day by day, scientists are researching and devising several techniques of producing energy in a way that doesn’t harm or pollute the environment, unlike fossils.

As the name suggests, fossils fuels are derived from plants and animal fossils that are millions of years old. Fossil sources are finite and the energy they produce is non-renewable. With the demand for energy increasing exponentially in the past few centuries, our resources are rapidly decreasing and is barely enough to sustain us through the next century. The use of fossils is immensely disadvantageous for both human beings and the environment. When extracted, fossils pose a severe damage to the landscape as they are to be dug out from underground wells. Pollution is another major disadvantage of fossil fuels. On burning, they give out harmful gases like nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. These gases pollute the air that we breathe. They also cause acid rain that destructs buildings. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is responsible for global warming, a looming threat to our very existence. As global warming has scaled new heights, it has complemented the depletion of the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. This can lead to skin cancer and cataract in mammals.

Propane is an appealing choice for alternate energy source as it is a clean fuel and is highly in demand in the global market. Though it is produced as a by-product in the manufacture of LPG and petroleum refining, these sources are finite and the amount produced is not commercially viable. In its current form, it takes up the bulk of LPG which has several applications ranging from central heating to conventional motor vehicles. Thus, alternate methods for production of propane has become the priority of the scientific community that recently made a breakthrough in this regard.

A team of scientists from Imperial College, London and the University of Turku in Finland, used E.coli to interrupt the biological process that converts fatty acids to a cell membrane. The research used enzymes to channel the fatty acids along a different biological pathway. The bacteria subjected to this modification produced renewable, engine ready propane instead of the cell membrane.

Albeit this research is in early stages, the fact that it produces propane that can be directly used as engine fuel without any processing makes it a discovery of enormous magnitude. This research provides a method of production of propane that was previously possible only through fossil reserves. Although the production has only been in small quantities now, scientists intend to expand its reaches and make it a sustainable energy source in future. Its use could initially complement and eventually, completely replace fossil fuels and petroleum. Propane is the obvious choice for scientists as this gas can easily escape the cell. This gas requires very little energy to transform itself into its liquid state that is easily transported, stored and used.

Using E.coli as the host, Scientists interrupted the biological process by which it converts fatty acids to the cell membrane. When this reaction is thwarted at an early stage, an intermediate called butyric acid (a compound with a nasty smell) is formed. Butyric acid is the precursor of propane. A bacterial enzyme called CAR was used to convert butyric acid to butyraldehyde. When an enzyme called ADO, short for aldehyde-formulating oxygenase is added to it, butyraldehyde is converted to propane. ADO is a commonly used enzyme for the naturally creating hydrocarbons. Previous attempts to use ADO enzyme have been futile as scientists were unable to harness the natural power of this enzyme to create hydrocarbons. However, scientists at the Imperial College have discovered that by stimulating ADO with electrons, they were able to enhance the catalytic capability of this enzyme substantially and ultimately produce propane.

The amount of propane produced currently by this method is about one thousand times less than what is commercially required. Hence, scientists are refining this method to make this promising discovery available to the world. This type of fuel has the potential to become one of the most pervasive and economical fuels available for the future. The method of production is not as elaborate as it is for petroleum products and it also is more economical than fossils. The most important aspect of using propane as a substitute for fossil fuel is that the efficacy of the engine remains the same as in the case of fossils. This is one distinct edge that propane has over other sources of energy like the sun and the wind that are sustainable but not as efficient as fossils and propane. This is one main reason people would readily adopt propane as a source of fuel in future when it is commercially produced.

As the global demand for energy is increasing day by day, energy technology has become a lucrative field with a lot of scopes and more and more scientists are taking up to it. Currently, algae can be used to make biodiesel, but it is not commercially viable as the harvesting and processing require a lot of energy. Moreover, biodiesel cannot be used independently as a fuel, but only in association with petroleum products. Hence, the only reduce fossil consumption but not eliminate its use. Propane, on the other hand, can be easily extracted from the natural process with minimal energy and is compatible with the existing infrastructure for easy use. They can completely replace the use of petroleum in automobiles. Typically, propane costs lesser than gasoline. It also enhances the engine efficiency. Propane is non-toxic, non-poisonous and insoluble in water. On burning, they give out lesser amounts of harmful gases and lesser greenhouse gases compared to fossils.

Fossils take millions of years to form. Since these resources are not recyclable, at this rate of usage, we are leaving absolutely nothing for our future generation. It is thus essential that we use them judiciously and prudently to make our lives easier and to prolong our lives. Once these resources are depleted, we cannot obtain any more coal, gas or oil. Hence, it is of at most importance that we depend on fossils as sparingly as possible and find alternative sources of energy to perform some of the functions that we currently satisfy using fossils.