Soybeans could help cars use thin air for fuel
New study uncovers an enzyme in soybean roots that could lead to cars that create gasoline from the air.
Tue, Aug 10, 2010 at 01:08 PM
Soy is both lauded and loathed for its different effects. Some of its positive uses are for plastics, clothing, food, candles, soap, and even vodka. According to MSNBC, it may soon be used to allow cars to run on nothing but thin air.
MSNBC says, “Vanadium nitrogenase, an enzyme that normally produces ammonia from nitrogen gas, can also convert carbon monoxide (CO), a common industrial byproduct, into propane, the blue-flamed gas found on stoves across America. While scientists caution the research is still at an early stage, they say that this study could eventually lead to new, environmentally friendly ways to produce fuel — and eventually gasoline — from thin air.”
“This organism is a very common soil bacteria that is very well understood and has been studied for a long time,” said Markus Ribbe, a scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the new paper that appears in the journal Science.
During the study, Ribbe noticed that the enzyme, which is found in soybean roots, had some unusual behaviors. The organism that the researchers studied was Azotobacter vinelandii, which is usually found in the soil around the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants like soybeans.
Farmers like plants that contain A. vinelandii because of its ability to turn nitrogen into ammonia and other chemicals that are vital to plant growth.
Ribbe and his colleagues isolated the enzyme vanadium nitrogenase in A. vinelandii to convert nitrogen into ammonia. Then the scientists removed the nitrogen and oxygen and filled the remaining space with carbon monoxide.
Surprisingly, the enzyme then began to turn the carbon monoxide into short chains of carbon two and three atoms long. A more familiar name for a three-carbon chain is propane.
Jonas Peters, a scientist at Cal Tech, said the new function of vanadium nitrogenase is a “profound discovery.” He went on to suggest that the new research could have important industrial applications.
Ribbe believes that he can modify the enzyme so that it could produce the longer carbon chains necessary to make up liquid gasoline. If so, the technique could lead to cars partially powered by nothing but their own fumes — and further development could result in vehicles that could draw fuel from the air itself.
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