Scientists in Britain produce propane for first time using renewable process

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 10:57pm


A gas which can power cars and heat homes has been made using a renewable process for the first time.

Propane, which makes up the bulk component of liquefied natural gas, has previously only ever been produced from fossil fuels.

But a team of scientists at Imperial College in London has successfully demonstrated that they can make propane from glucose using a genetically engineered version of the bacterium E coli.

"We can now make a product that until now was only available from fossil fuels and it's chemically identical," said Patrik Jones, the lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday. "It should work exactly the same as normal propane."

The new work only produced tiny quantities of propane, but is proof that it could be produced without the need for its two usual sources of production - petrol refining and natural gas processing.

"It's not something that's going to be used by industry today, but it is important and significant," said Jones, who added he would need to scale up production by three magnitudes to attract investors.

To make the propane, the team "hijacked the assembly line" of the biological process of fatty acid synthesis in E coli, introducing a group of enzymes into the bacterium.

Two more enyzmes were then added to eventually turn the smelly fatty acid into propane.

Producing petrol or diesel would be much more complex, Jones said.

"Fossil fuels are a finite resource and as our population continues to grow we are going to have to come up with new ways to meet increasing energy demands. It is a substantial challenge, however, to develop a renewable process that is low-cost and economically sustainable," he said.