Microbes May Hold the Secret to Creating More Powerful Rocket Fuel

Microbes may hold the secret to creating more powerful rocket fuel

A popular rocket fuel called RP-1 gets its name from its main ingredient: refined petroleum. Research published last week in the journal Joules suggests a potentially cleaner and more potent ingredient: a molecule produced by the Streptomyces bacteria. The proposed fuel won’t be ready anytime soon, but the new research points to this intriguing possibility.

Streptomyces produces fungicidal molecules called POP-FAMEs, also known as polycylcopropanated fatty acid methyl esters. POP-FAMEs have carbon rings made up of three carbon molecules bonded together in tight triangles at 60-degree angles. The scientists behind the new study reasoned that this carbon geometry could be superior to conventional approaches to fuel, and for two main reasons.

Because the carbon geometry in a POP-FAME is more compact than that in pre-existing fuels, a larger number of molecules can fill the same amount of space. In addition, sharp angles within POP-FAMEs emphasize the carbon bonds, and this stress, the researchers suspected, could be an important source of potential energy and with a cleaner manufacturing process.

“This biosynthetic pathway provides a clean route to highly energy-rich fuels that, prior to this work, could only be produced from petroleum using a highly toxic synthesis process,” said author Jay Keasling in a statement. press release† Keasling is a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and is the CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) — a research center of the Energy Department. “Since these fuels would be produced from bacteria fed on plant material — which is made from carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere — burning them in engines will significantly reduce the amount of added greenhouse gas relative to any fuel generated from petroleum. .”

There is no guarantee that this proposed biofuel will be more environmentally friendly than conventional fuels. We have no idea of ​​the possible ways in which the production process of this fuel could be harmful, at least not until a scaled-up production process is in place. It is important to point out that not all biofuels are environmentally friendly

Although rings with three carbons are not necessarily rare, the researchers were able to find only two examples identified in previous research, both in the form of molecules produced by Streptomyces† The problem, they say, is that Streptomyces is almost impossible to grow in a laboratory setting. Fortunately, one of the molecules had been analyzed in a previous genetic study, which allowed the researchers to grow the POP-FAMEs from scratch once they identified the enzymes responsible for producing them.

Computer simulations of the lab-grown molecule indicated that POP-FAMEs could have an energy density of 50 megajoules per liter, while RP-1 could have an energy density of 35 megajoules per liter. That’s clearly a substantial improvement – at least in theory. Indeed, while the researchers were able to estimate the energy density of the POP-FAME, Keasling and team are still a long way from large-scale testing.

“You need 10 pounds of fuel to do a test in a real rocket engine, and we’re not there yet,” said study co-author Pablo Cruz-Morales of the Lawrence National Laboratory and University of California Berkeley.

Either way, these preliminary results look promising, and it could ultimately result in more efficient rocket fuel while reducing the aerospace industry’s reliance on petroleum.

More: Rocket launches can pollute our atmosphere in new and unexpected ways

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