According to research presented at the annual general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, these microscopic organisms are “biological factories” that can serve as alternatives to fossil fuels.
Currently, the majority of biofuel comes from ethanol, which is fermented from sugars that are found in corn starch.
However, a team of US researchers has learned that a bacterium called A. thermophilum can break down plant-based (cellulosic) biomass into sugars and ferment it into ethanol without the need for specifically grown feedstock.
Using this process, the environmental impact of ethanol production can be significantly reduced while the financial incentive for transport and petrol companies to use biofuels is made much stronger.
“Right now it is expensive to break down cellulosic biomass,” said Martin Keller, from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“That is why we don’t have a sustainable biofuels industry. This is what we as a centre are working to overcome.”
A study is also being conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Madison into a purple bacterium called R. sphaeroides, which uses photosynthesis to produce hydrogen using cellulosic feedstock and sunlight.
This hydrogen can then be converted into electricity using fuel cells, which lead researcher Tim Donohue labelled “microbial batteries”; it is claimed they are powerful enough to power a laptop when exposed to sunlight.