Researchers Basil Nikolau (left) and Jackie Shanks are working to develop new biological sources of petroleum for your car. (Photo: Bob Elbert/Iowa State University)

IOWA STATE (US)—Researchers are looking to plants and algae as a source of green, renewable hydrocarbons—and second-generation biofuels.

Iowa State University professor Jackie Shanks says some plants and algae produce hydrocarbons as a way to store carbon and energy.

“These plants are capturing solar energy and creating something that’s chemically identical to petroleum,” says Shanks, Manley R. Hoppe Professor of Chemical Engineering.

But, she adds, researchers don’t know the exact structures, mechanisms, genetics, and metabolism of that conversion.

Shanks and a team of researchers are leading a study to investigate the production of biological hydrocarbons. Shanks says the team’s specific task is to isolate, characterize, and bioengineer a catalyst that creates the biological hydrocarbons.

Basil Nikolau, Iowa State’s Frances M. Craig Professor in the departments of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, and food science and human nutrition, says the current project will not address which plants or algae are the best producers of biological hydrocarbons or how the biological process can best be exploited. He notes those studies would build on the discoveries of the current project.

But can plants directly produce hydrocarbons for biofuels? Shanks says the research could lead to technologies that transform how liquid fuels are produced.

“The production of renewable hydrocarbons that would integrate directly into the existing fossil-carbon infrastructure would represent an important advance in biofuels technology,” the researchers wrote in their project proposal. “Transforming this existing industry to a bio-based carbon feed-source is a grand challenge that will need to integrate unique and proficient biological solutions with new engineering efficiencies.”

The work is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation.

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