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Stanford-Penn State scientists use microbes to make 'clean' methane
Date:7/24/2012

ur research. If we can engineer methanogens to produce methane at scale, it will be a game changer."

'Green' methane

Burning natural gas accelerates global warming by releasing carbon dioxide that's been trapped underground for millennia. The Stanford and Penn State team is taking a "greener" approach to methane production. Instead of drilling rigs and pumps, the scientists envision large bioreactors filled with methanogens single-cell organisms that resemble bacteria but belong to a genetically distinct group of microbes called archaea.

By human standards, a methanogen's lifestyle is extreme. It cannot grow in the presence of oxygen. Instead, it regularly dines on atmospheric carbon dioxideand electrons borrowed from hydrogen gas. The byproduct of this microbial meal is pure methane, which methanogens excrete into the atmosphere.

The researchers plan to use this methane to fuel airplanes, ships and vehicles. In the ideal scenario, cultures of methanogens would be fed a constant supply of electrons generated from emissions-free power sources, such as solar cells, wind turbines and nuclear reactors. The microbes would use these clean electrons to metabolize carbon dioxide into methane, which can then be stockpiled and distributed via existing natural gas facilities and pipelines when needed.

When the microbial methane is burnt as fuel, carbon dioxide would be recycled back into the atmosphere where it originated from unlike conventional natural gas combustion, which contributes to global warming.

"Microbial methane is much more ecofriendly than ethanol and other biofuels," Spormann said. "Corn ethanol, for example, requires acres of cropland, as well as fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and fermentation. Methanogens are much more efficient, because they metabolize methane in just a few quick steps."

Microbial communities

For this new technology to become commercially viable, a n
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert  

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