Thanks to a generous tax credit renewed by Congress at the beginning of this year, national biodiesel production is expected to ramp up to the tune of 1.6 billion gallons in 2013. Experts predict the credit will encourage biodiesel manufacturers to invest in infrastructure, and provide an incentive to gas stations to begin carrying the cleaner-burning fuel at the pumps.
A new process for synthesizing biodiesel could be less costly to manufacturers, as well as produce purer fuel. Invented by U of M Distinguished McKnight Professor Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, the method employs a special enzyme that breaks down phytol and starches. This enzyme is biologically manufactured using a genetically engineered bacterium. Because there is no glycerin produced as a by-product, the biodiesel purity is greatly improved and costs can be reduced. The resulting biodiesel can be converted from feedstock more quickly than other bio-based methods, can be produced without using vegetable-derived oils, and does not yield toxic chemicals.
Schmidt-Dannert is an expert in the field of metabolic pathways and natural product biosynthesis, and is experimenting with cutting and pasting genes from unrelated organisms to produce novel pathways never before seen in nature. In addition to her work on biofuels, these carefully designed pathways have proven instrumental to the discovery of more effective, less expensive pharmaceuticals.