Scientists discover how to use human gut to produce propane

Scientists say they have found a way to make a renewable alternative to fossil fuels from bacteria commonly found in the human gut.

British and Finnish researchers have engineered E.coli bacteria to create a renewable form of propane. The move could pave the way for what is usually a byproduct of petrol refining and natural-gas processing to be a sustainable replacement for diesel and petrol.

"We've only made milligrams so far," said Dr Patrik Jones, of Imperial College London, co-author of a paper on the research results published in the journal Nature Communications.

"But, as far as we know, this is the first time we have a renewable way of producing a chemically identical molecule that we otherwise only have available from fossil fuel reservoirs."

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Although the amount of fuel produced so far is tiny, it is ready to be used in an engine immediately.

Propane currently makes up the bulk of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which can be used to fuel anything from a car to a camping stove or a central-heating unit.

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The scientists from Imperial College and Finland's University of Turku decided to try to make a renewable version of propane. Its benefits include being easily transportable as a liquid and having an existing global market with a lot of infrastructure in place.

To make the renewable propane, the scientists found a way to capture butyric acid by interrupting the biological processes of the E.coli bacteria. This foul-smelling compound is found in vomit and rancid butter and is an essential precursor to propane production.

This did not always make for pleasant laboratory conditions. Dr Jones explained that the scientists worked with fume hoods, or ventilation chambers, to remove unpleasant odours.

Ultimately, the scientists hope to be able to use the engineered system with photosynthetic bacteria in order to directly convert solar energy into chemical fuel.

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But Dr Jones cautioned that their work was still at an early stage. It could take years before a commercially viable process of producing sustainable fuel is found.

He said further study was needed to boost productivity to a point where an industrial partner might be interested enough to consider translating the work into a commercial application.

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The research was funded by a grant from the European Research Council. Dr Jones said the idea was "born in a mad rush" because the project required solutions to problems that did not involve existing technologies. "Hence, only entirely new concepts were acceptable," he said.

This was a highly commendable approach, he added, and should be carried on in order to encourage the creation of new ideas and technologies.