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Microbes May Hold the Secret to Creating More Powerful Rocket Fuel

A popular rocket fuel called RP-1 gets its name from its key ingredient: refined petroleum. Research published last week in the journal Joule suggests a potentially cleaner and more powerful ingredient: a molecule produced by the Streptomyces bacteria. The proposed fuel won’t be ready any time soon, but the new research points to this intriguing possibility.

Streptomyces produces anti-fungal molecules called POP-FAMEs, otherwise known as polycylcopropanated fatty acid methyl esters. POP-FAMEs feature carbon rings made up of three carbon molecules bonded together into tight triangles with 60-degree angles. The scientists behind the new study reasoned that this carbon geometry might be superior to conventional approaches to fuel, and for two main reasons.

Because the carbon geometry in a POP-FAME is more compact than those found in preexisting fuels, it allows a greater number of molecules to fill the same amount of space. What’s more, acute angles within POP-FAMEs place stress on the carbon bonds, and this stress, the researchers surmised, could be a major source of potential energy and with a cleaner production process.

“This biosynthetic pathway provides a clean route to highly energy-dense fuels that, prior to this work, could only be produced from petroleum using a highly toxic synthesis process,” said author Jay Keasling in a press release. Keasling is a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and is the CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI)—a Department of Energy research center. “As these fuels would be produced from bacteria fed with plant matter—which is made from carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere—burning them in engines will significantly reduce the amount of added greenhouse gas relative to any fuel generated from petroleum.”

That this proposed biofuel will be environmentally safer than conventional fuels is no guarantee. We have no way of knowing the potential ways in which the production process of this fuel might be harmful, at least not until a scaled-up production process is up and running. It’s important to point out that not all biofuels are eco-friendly.


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