Team:Washington/Alkanes/Background

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Modern society is completely dependent on petroleum based fuels. Automobiles are slowly transitioning towards electric power. However, for the foreseeable future, batteries will not be able to hold the energy needed for applications that require long range(e.g. jet planes, maritime shipping, and long range trucking) or high horsepower(e.g. agriculture, construction, industry). Without the use of petroleum, society as we know it would crumble.


However, petroleum is not a viable long term fuel. Petroleum is a non-renewable, limited resource. When petroleum based fuels are combusted, Caron dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Using current technology, it is impossible to turn this carbon dioxide back into fuel, meaning that the amount of petroleum based fuel is a finite commodity. In addition, this excess carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.


Many different attempts have been made to produce a renewable, biologically derived fuel that would alleviate both the limited supply and emissions issues presented by petroleum based fuels. These efforts include alcohols( ethanol, butanol and other, higher alcohols), and biodiesel . Like petroleum based fuels, biofuels consist of combustible molecules that emit carbon dioxide. However, unlike petroleum based fuels, bioduels are renewable. CO2 can be converted into more biofuel by feeding biofuel producing microbes( bacteria, yeast) photosynthetically derived plant biomass. Since the amount of CO2 produced by burning a biofuel cannot exceed the CO2 incorporated into plant biomass, a biofuel can be used indefinitely without any net carbon emissions.

However, current biofuels consist of drastically different compounds from those found in petroleum. Petroleum consists of mostly long-chain length alkanes consisting of long hydrocarbon chains. Current biofuels contain either alcohols or long chain esters( biodiesel). Both of these molecules contain oxygen, which dramatically changes chemical properties. Both alcohols and biodiesel are more corrosive than unreactive alkanes. Alcohols are highly corrosive, both in pipelines ( cite), and in engines not designed for the use of alcohols, even at concentrations as low as 20%. The corrosivity of alcohols in pipelines means that ethanol( the main alcohol in widespread use) is transported in vehicles( mostly by train)(cite), as opposed to by cheaper and less energy intensive pipelines. Transport of alcohols by pipeline would require retrofitting the entire fuel distribution infrastructure. The Esters in biodiesel are not directly as corrosive as alcohols, but can be biodegraded by anaerobic bacteria, producing hydrogen sulfide and other acids. In addition, both biodiesel and alcohols have lower energy densities than diesel, which would result in lower fuel efficiency.


A recent study(cite) has shown production of alkanes(the main component of gasoline) in E. coli by introducing two genes native to cyanobacteria, Acyl-ACP Reductase(AAR), and Aldehyde Decarbonylase(ADC). AAR reduces Acyl-ACPs( intermediates in fatty acid biosynthesis) into the corresponding long-chain fatty aldehyde. This aldehyde acts as a substrate for ADC, which removes the aldehyde's carbonyl group, yielding Formate and an alkane one carbon shorter than the original Acyl-ACP.


Diagram showing alkane production using ADC and AAR