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Manchester team wins major EU biofuels grant

01 Oct 2010

The European Commission has agreed to fund a project to develop photosynthetic microorganisms that directly convert solar power and carbon dioxide into engine-ready fuel.

The project – involving The University of Manchester and eight partner institutions – aims to produce propane, a non-toxic end product that is volatile at room temperature, easily liquefied and, having been used for more than half a century, has an existing distribution infrastructure. Furthermore, the method will not compete for agricultural land and contains no destructive extraction processes.

The FP7 collaborative project is "Direct biological conversion of solar energy to volatile hydrocarbon fuels by engineered cyanobacteria" (Acronym: DirectFuel, grant agreement no. 256808). The 9-partner project is coordinated by the University of Turku headed by the coordinator, Dr. Patrik Jones (Group Leader, Bioenergy group), and deputy coordinator, Prof. Eva-Mari Aro (Molecular Plant Biology group). The project is carried out over 4 years starting October 1, 2010, with a total maximum project funding of 3,729,519 EUR.

The consortium partners include Dr. Patrik Jones and Prof. Eva-Mari Aro (Univ. Turku, Finland), Prof. Merja Penttilä (Valtion Teknillinen Tutkimuskeskus (VTT), Finland), Prof. Wolfgang Hess (Albert-Ludwigs-Universitaet Freiburg, Germany), Dr. Ralf Steuer (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany), Prof. Nigel Scrutton (Univ. Manchester, UK), Prof. Neil Marsh (Univ. Michigan, USA), Prof. Yumiko Sakuragi (Univ. Copenhagen, Denmark), Dr. Alessandra Frattini (Chemtext Italia SRL, Italy) and Mr. Martin Trtilek (Photon Systems Instruments SPOL SRO, Czech Republic).

Professor Nigel Scrutton, who led the Manchester Faculty of Life Sciences team with Professor David Leys, said: “The successful outcome of the DirectFuel project will revolutionize the production of biofuels by engineering photosynthetic microbes that produce engine-ready fuels without the need to harvest biomass. Through this paradigm change, increases in efficiency will result that will have major, sustainable, positive impacts on the environment and the economics of renewable energy production.”

The DirectFuel project sets the challenging target of developing a photobiological process for direct conversion of sunlight and CO2 into engine- and infrastructure-ready transport fuels such as propane. Biological energy-conversion processes are particularly well-suited for production of the hydrocarbon fuel molecules that today's transport industry rely on. However, no natural capability for such a conversion is known at present, the task of the DirectFuel project is therefore to construct new metabolic pathways with such capability. Propane is chosen as a key-target as it is volatile at room temperature (at atmospheric pressure), yet easily liquefied at moderate pressure. As a consequence, this allows the fuel product to be harvested without disturbing the biological production process (thereby avoiding the need to extract fuel or fuel-precursors) while still allowing the fuel to be directly and easily used under high energy-density storage conditions. Propane has already been utilized as vehicle fuel for over half a century and many EU countries already have an existing infrastructure for distribution of liquefied propane in the form of LPG. For example, over 5,000 petrol stations in Germany sell LPG. The entire process is thus tailored for both high-efficiency production and direct implementation through compatibility with current distribution and end-use infrastructures.

The DirectFuel project covers a broad spectrum of methodologies and R&D questions, including (1) enzyme screening, evolution and targeted engineering, (2) computational modeling of photobiological metabolism, (3) engineering and optimization of the metabolism of cyanobacteria, (4) development of photobioreactor technology and (5) theoretical life cycle analysis.

Brief Summary

The EU FP7 collaborative project DirectFuel (grant agreement no. 256808) is accepted for funding starting October 1, 2010. DirectFuel is coordinated from University of Turku by Patrik Jones (coordinator) and Eva-Mari Aro (deputy coordinator). A total of 9 partners will carry out a 4-year project with the aim of constructing a system for "Direct photobiological conversion of solar energy to volatile transport fuel". More information will soon follow on the DirectFuel specific website ( The total maximum funding for the project is 3,729,519 EUR.




DirectFuel Official Public Abstract

The objective of the DirectFuel project is to develop photosynthetic microorganisms that catalyze direct conversion of solar energy and carbon dioxide to engine-ready fuels. A key process target of the proposal is 'direct' in the sense that fuel production should not require destructive extraction and further chemical conversion to generate directly useable transport fuels. To further increase our chances of delivering a functioning process we target only non-toxic end-products that have been demonstrated to function in existing or minimally modified combustion engines. From the above criteria, we have chosen to develop an exclusively biological production process for the volatile end-products ethylene and short-chain n-alkanes ethane and propane in photosynthetic

cyanobacteria. As no natural biochemical pathways are known to exist for short-chain alkane biosynthesis, we first identify potential gene candidates through informatics analysis and then tailor the substrate specificities of the encoded enzymes by enzyme engineering. In order to directly capture solar energy to drive fuel biosynthesis, the synthetic pathways are at first assembled in the photosynthetic model organism Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. It is highly unlikely that mere 'introduction' of novel biochemical pathways will result in high-yield synthesis of desired end-products. The final key step is therefore to optimize native host metabolism to deliver reducing energy and metabolic precursors to the synthetic pathways with maximum metabolic flux. Successful construction of the intended strains would allow low-cost production of transport fuel in a potentially neutral 'greenhouse gas' emitting process that does not compete for agricultural land. The proposed project is highly relevant to the call as we construct "new metabolic pathways" that catalyze "direct" production of "gaseous fuels for transport" "directly from solar radiation".

Notes for editors

For a graphic overview of the process, more information or an interview with Professors Nigel Scrutton and David Leys, contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111, 07768 980942 or