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Aussie team works to turn citrus into super jet fuel

July 11, 2014 Aviation, Headline News 1 Comment Email Email

egtmedia59Queensland researchers are persuading baker’s yeast to produce orange-flavoured renewable jet fuel from sugar.

Timothy Brennan and his colleagues at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have helped genetically-engineered yeast to evolve to make an oil called limonene, which is found naturally in lemons and oranges, and also happens to be an efficient jet fuel.

Brennan is part of a team working with Boeing and Virgin to come up with an alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

The team has now worked out how to get the yeast to make more oil without killing itself in the process.

It’s an important step in scaling up biofuel production so that it can become a serious alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

Tim Brennan

Tim Brennan

“When you open an orange, what you’re smelling is limonene – it’s a hydrocarbon that has excellent jet-fuel properties and recently outperformed traditional jet fuel in a model aircraft,” Brennan said.

“We can take genes from oranges or lemons and assemble them in yeast to turn them into tiny limonene factories, which eat sugar and spit out orange-flavoured jet fuels.”

Brennan is the Queensland winner of Famelab Australia, an international communication competition for scientists, including engineers and mathematicians.

While there are plenty of researchers already producing small amounts of yeast-derived biofuels around the world, one common limitation is the fact that production volumes are limited by the toxicity of the fuel. Brennan and his colleagues have made two important steps forward.

The major stumbling block is that too much limonene is toxic to yeast cells, and this limits how much fuel the yeast cells can produce before it kills them.

“When you buy household cleaning products that smell like lemons or oranges, those flavour compounds aren’t just there to smell nice – they actually help kill bugs, and they kill yeast too,” Brennan explained.

But Brennan and his colleagues have worked out how to help the yeast survive the toxic conditions to produce greater volumes of the fuel.

They’ve redesigned the bioreactor so the fuel is removed immediately after being produced by the yeast. This has allowed the same yeast to tolerate up to 700 times more fuel than it would in a traditional bioreactor.

And they’re also altering the genes of the yeast to help it withstand higher levels of limonene.

“By changing only a single gene, I can improve the cells’ resistance to the fuel, so it can stand to produce more of it. But finding that gene wasn’t easy – I had to use biology’s oldest tool, adaptive evolution, to help me get there,” Brennan said.

“I couldn’t wait for the yeast cells to evolve naturally on their own, so I sped up evolution in the lab. Each day I’d challenge them with a little more limonene than they had the day before. This constant environmental pressure ensured that only the fittest cells survived each day. Two months later I isolated a yeast strain that was much more resistant than the one I started with.”

Brennan has just completed his PhD with The University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).

FameLab is a global science communication competition for early career scientists. Brennan was the winner of the Queensland state competition, and was runner-up at the national final in May.

Edited by : William Sykes

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Aleli Butler says:

    What a brilliant idea !

    Have you considered presenting it to Richard Branson of the Virgin Group ?

    He’s always looking for something worthwhile doing.

    As he has utmost respect for the environment we live in, & has the funds to be able to improve it, I encourage you to get in touch with his group.

    All the best. Live long & prosper 🙂

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