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Fuel for the future


Problem

With dwindling fossil fuel reserves, a global energy crisis is looming. It is estimated that current global oil reserves will only last another 53 years, while coal and natural gas reserves will only stretch to another 109 and 56 years, respectively.

Our current fuel sources may be at risk, but their impact on our planet continues. Greenhouse gasses emitted when burning these fuels are devastating the environment and impacting our efforts to slow climate change. Developing sustainable, alternative energy strategies – that are also environmentally friendly – has become vitally important across the globe.

Solution

Could a heat-resistant microorganism capable of thriving on the edge of volcanoes, hydrothermal vents and in hot springs provide us with such a sustainable strategy? According to Dr Pieter De Maayer, Research Fellow at the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, it may just! He uses cutting-edge technologies to unlock this microorganism's potential for the biological production of alternative energy sources, more specifically biofuel.

Dr De Maayer has been studying how the microorganism Geobacillus can effectively degrade hemicellulose – the polymers in cell walls – into simple sugars, which in turn can be converted into biofuel. "The discovery led me to the idea to genetically engineer a hemicellulose superdegrader Geobacillus strain. It will be able to convert multiple types of hemicellulose found in mixed sources, such as municipal and agro-forestry waste," explains Dr De Maayer.

Dr Pieter De Maayer

He is also studying a Geobacillus strain which can efficiently turn waste gases, which contain carbon monoxide, into hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is tipped as the alternative fuel for the future.

Progress

Dr De Maayer believes that we are currently only scratching the surface in this field.

To date, he has screened a large number of Geobacillus isolates capable of degrading different hemicelluloses. This research has been coupled with cutting-edge genomic technologies to identify the genes responsible for this capacity. Dr De Maayer is currently incorporating the different genes into a single strain through genetic engineering. It will form the hemicellulose degrader, which will soon be tested for its capacity to degrade waste.

Collaborating with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, and partly funded by the German government, he has proven that his Geobacillus strain can produce huge yields of hydrogen gas and that it is the aerobic bacterium to do so using a mechanism previously only reported in anaerobic microorganisms. “This strain may have major implications for commercial hydrogen production. We are currently working on patenting it and optimising the production process,” says Dr De Maayer.  

For more information, contact Dr De Maayer on: [email protected]

For an overview of his research, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pieter_De_Maayer


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