Scientists Have Created Bio-Rocket Fuel

For those of you concerned that rockets, jet fighters and the like aren't environmentally friendly, some good news: scientists have worked out how to use bacteria to create rocket fuel.

A team of scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Joint BioEnergy Institute have genetically engineered a version of E. Coli that is capable of producing pinene. That's a hydrocarbon produced by trees that could potentially replace high-energy fuels such as JP-10, which is currently used in many jet engines and rockets. The research is published in ACS Synthetic Biology.

The team inserted enzymes from trees into the bacterium in order to create the pinene-producing bugs. Pinene is particularly energy-dense, just like jet fuels—where the weight saving of cramming more calories into the same volume of liquid is a significant bonus.

There's still some way to go before all the jets, rockets and missiles in the world are fuelled through biological means, though. The bacteria currently only produce 32 milligrams of fuel per liter of glucose that they're fed on—which is far from efficient.

But the good news is that the process doesn't need to become crazily cost-effective to succeed. While producing biofuel replacements for something like diesel needs to compete at a price point of around $3 a gallon, rocket fuel represents a much smaller fraction of the crude oil from which it's derived, so it's more like $25 per gallon.

So, while there's still a need to boost production rates—and the team wants to increase it by a factor of 26—there's not quite the same urgency to make it incredibly cheap. But regardless of price, at least high-energy fuels will be a little more green in the future. [ACS Synthetic Biology via Phys.Org]

Image by Randy Merrill under Creative Commons license