ARPA-E Hydrocarbon Production

Development of Rhodobacter as a Versatile Microbial Platform for Fuels Production

  1. Nybo, SE, Khan, N, Woolston, BM, Curtis, WR. (2015Metabolic engineering in chemolothoautotrophic hosts for the production of fuels and chemicals. Metab. Eng. DOI: 10.1016/j.ymben.2015.04.008. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Khan, Nymul. Nybo, Eric S., Chappell, Joe, Curtis, Wayne R. (2015Triterpene hydrocarbon production engineered into a metabolically versatile host - Rhodobacter capsulatus. Biotechnology & BioengineeringDOI: 10.1002/bit.25573. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Khan NE, Myers JA, Amalie L. Tuerk AL, Curtis WR (2014A  process economic assessment of hydrocarbon biofuels production using chemoautotrophic organisms, Bioresource Technology, 172:201–211, 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2014.08.118.


YouTube Video

A microorganism that usually scavenges its energy from residual light and organic waste in the mud at the bottom of a pond will be ‘rewired’ to use electricity (or electrons from electrically-generated hydrogen) and to consume carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce gasoline.
A group of engineers from Penn State University are teaming up with a molecular biologist from the University of Kentucky to take the hydrocarbon synthesis genes from an oil-producing algae (Botryococcus braunii) and put them into this ‘electron-consuming’ bacteria (Rhodobacter). Moving this capability from algae to bacteria will be facilitated through the new methodologies of ‘synthetic biology’, where DNA is fabricated to make the genes work together efficiently within their new bacterial host. A key element to success is developing engineered bioreactor systems to grow the bacteria and facilitate the biochemical reactions that will consume carbon dioxide. It is not simply enough to develop a method that works, but the overall process must be engineered in a way to achieve a low-cost alternative to fossil fuels and crude oil. The engineers are working on ways to feed the H2 and electrons to the bacteria in as inexpensively as possible. This new approach to producing liquid fuels from CO2 will make a bio-oil that is easily converted to standard gasoline.

ARPA-E Mission

ARPA-E seeks to generate a smart energy infrastructure that will provide energy while minimizing the environmental impact of using fossil fuels. For the next several decades, liquid fuels will be required for transportation, and coal will play a dominant role for electrical power generation. This proposal seeks to take advantage of efforts to capture CO2 and utilize it for fuel production (rather than seek options of underground sequestration). To accomplish this, the fuel production process can be interfaced to developing technologies of capturing solar energy, including photo-voltaics (P.V.) and microbial fuel cells (MFC) which can produce electricity either directly or indirectly from solar radiation. By feeding either hydrogen (produced from splitting water with electricity) or electrons directly to a microorganism that is genetically engineered to produce hydrocarbons, this project will provide a means of converting diffuse solar energy into energy dense transportation fuels. The implementation of this new infrastructure will create jobs and protect existing jobs by providing a domestic source of transportation fuels that will synergistically evolve with improved technologiesfor electrical power generation.a smart energy infrastructure that will provide energy while minimizing the environmental impact of using fossil fuels. 

Technical / Progress

This section contains links to updates and progress related to both genetic engineering and bioprocess engineering objectives.  Since the nature of this work is to facilitate commercialization, many of the details are not made public at this time. 

2012 ARPA_E Energy Innovation Summit.   

Meeting held in Washington DC February 27-29, 2012.  This contains the presented poster, handouts on various technology developments, and videos of the demonstrations presented at the summit technology showcase.


Faculty Investigators:
Wayne R. Curtis 
Bruce Logan (Civil & Environmental Engineering, PSU)
Joe Chappell (Plant & Soil Science, University of Kentucky)
Post-Doctoral Scholars:  
Alex Rajangam (Curtis Lab)
John Pisciotta  (Logan > Curtis Labs)
Eric Nybo  (Chappell Lab)

Scott Kinison (Chappell Lab)

Graduate Students:  
Nymul Khan (PhD Candidate, PSU Chemical Engineering)
Amalie Tuerk (MS, PSU Chemical Engineering)
Mustafa Erbakan   (PhD Candidate, PSU Bioengineering)

Pre-Doctoral Students:  (post B.S.)
Brandon Curtis
Ben Woolston
Undergraduate Students: