The future of fuel may lie in the sea

2:16 min

Researchers at universities in Stockholm and Gothenburg have been working on transforming a genetically-modified version of blue-green algae into the alcohol butanol, which can be used to fuel motor vehicles.

There's a global hunt to replace fossil fuels with efficient green alternatives. One alternative has been ethanol, produced from corn and sugar cane. However, butanol is far more promising. It can potentially be 20 times more efficient than making ethanol and butanol yields around 50 percent more energy than ethanol. Plus, the raw materials used to make butanol are abundant and conceivably infinitely renewable: sunlight, carbon dioxide and bacteria.

Head of research Paul Hudson and doctoral student Josefine Anfelt are two of those working on the project at the Alba Nova university center and the School of Biotechnology at the Royal Technical Institute in Stockholm. In the lab are shelves of beakers swimming with cyanobacteria in light-flooded cabinets. The researchers are working towards finding the optimal way to modify the cyanobacteria genes to produce butanol by harnessing the algae's natural metabolism.

"With relevant genes integrated in the right place in cyanobacteria's genome, they tricked the cells to produce butanol instead of fulfilling their normal function," Paul Hudson explained the process to Swedish Radio Science.

However, it has not been all smooth sailing.

"We have achieved only about 1 percent of what we would like," Paul Hudson says about how far they've come with the research. He also said that it has taken them two years to get to the point of producing the butanol from cyanobacteria.

It may be up to 20 years before the process is refined enough to be useable.