Innovation: Petri to Petrol

September, 2007

As researchers look for new ways to make ethanol from crops, a University of Hawaii professor believes he has found a quick and dirty solution to our energy challenges: bacteria. Cyanobacteria, to be exact. The process? Cyanobacteria feeds off sunlight and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and ethanol. Not only does the process use carbon dioxide, but it also helps to reduce global warming. The man behind the scene? Professor Pencheng “Patrick” Fu of the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering.


Microscopic Implants

Fu uses genetic engineering tools to insert two genes into a type of cyanobacteria found in freshwater. The genetic manipulation creates cyanobacteria that produce ethanol as waste.


Primordial Fuel

The gene-enhanced cyanobacteria is placed in a special tank where it is mixed with trace amounts of water, salts and other nutrients. Then carbon dioxide is continuously bubbled into the tank as the cyanobacteria is pumped through 10 meters of enclosed tubes. The last ingredient is sunlight, which penetrates the tubes, allowing the cyanobacteria to multiply and produce ethanol. Last, a special membrane in the tank separates ethanol from the cyanobacteria.


Ticket to Ride

Fu patented the technology last January and has been meeting with companies in Asia and the U.S. Mainland to commercialize the process. He hopes his method will create an economically feasible way of producing large amounts of ethanol and help reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

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Cathy S. Cruz-George