Scientists have developed a potentially green and renewable biofuel replacement for diesel fuel that would not corrode oil pipelines or tanks.


The researchers, affiliated with the U.S Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute, engineered strains of E. coli with the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to produce bisabolane, a promising biosynthetic alternative to Number 2 (D2) diesel.


Taek Soon Lee is director of the J.B.E.I.'s metabolic engineering program and a project scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Physical Biosciences Division.


In a press release, Lee stated that the “work is also a proof-of-principle for advanced biofuels research in that we've shown that we can design a biofuel target, evaluate this fuel target, and produce the fuel with microbes that we've engineered."


Biofuels are typically derived from the biomass of grasses and other non-food plants, and is seen as a potential replacement for oil as a fuel source. Ethanol, derived from corn, has also been touted as a possible replacement, but has shown to be incompatible with diesel and jet engines, and would likewise cause damage to existing pipelines.


Jay Keasling, CEO of J.B.E.I., served as co-author of the study.


"We desperately need drop-in, renewable biofuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived fuels, particularly for vehicles that cannot be electrified," Keasling said in a press about the research.


J.B.E.I. has been researching and experimenting with sesquiterpenes, compounds that contain 15 carbon atoms and “have a high-energy content and physicochemical properties similar to diesel and jet fuels,” Lee said.


By bringing together E. coli and S. cerevisiae, Lee and his team found that the microorganisms produce large quantities of a chemical compound called farnesyl diphosphate that can be synthesized into a particular terpene.


From there, the scientists created bisabolene a precursor to bisabolane, which is almost identical to D2 diesel, except that it has a lower freezing point. This, according to Lee, will be to their benefit when developing it as a fuel replacement.


The team is now preparing to make gallons of the bisabolenes for testing in actual diesel engines. That will be followed by determining the economics necessary to produce the fuel on a commercial scale and the fuel’s environmental impacts.


This study will appear in the journal Nature Communications.


J.B.E.I. is a scientific partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and including the Sandia National Laboratories, the UC campuses of Berkeley and Davis, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.