Biofuels from Bacteria, Electricity, and CO2

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New York, New York
Project Term:
07/01/2010 - 06/30/2014

Critical Need:

Domestic biofuels are an attractive alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels. Biofuels are produced from plant matter, such as sugars, oils, and biomass. This plant matter is created by photosynthesis, a process that converts solar energy into stored chemical energy in plants. However, photosynthesis is an inefficient way to transfer energy from the sun to a plant and then to biofuel. Electrofuels—which bypass photosynthesis by using self-reliant microorganisms that can directly use the energy from electricity and chemical compounds to produce liquid fuels—are an innovative step forward.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Columbia University is using carbon dioxide (CO2) from ambient air, ammonia—an abundant and affordable chemical—and a bacteria called N. europaea to produce liquid fuel. The Columbia University team is feeding the ammonia and CO2 into an engineered tank where the bacteria live. The bacteria capture the energy from ammonia and then use that energy to convert CO2 into a liquid fuel. When the bacteria use up all the ammonia, renewable electricity can regenerate it and pump it back into the system—creating a continuous fuel-creation cycle. In addition, Columbia University is also working with the bacteria A. ferrooxidans to capture and use energy from ferrous iron to produce liquid fuels from CO2.

Potential Impact:

If successful, Columbia University would create a liquid transportation fuel that is cost competitive with traditional gasoline-based fuels and 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels.


Cost-competitive electrofuels would help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil and increase the nation's energy security.


Widespread use of electrofuels would help limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce demands for land, water, and fertilizer traditionally required to produce biofuels.


A domestic electrofuels industry could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy. Widespread use of electrofuels could also help stabilize gasoline prices—saving drivers money at the pump.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Eric Rohlfing
Project Contact:
Prof. Scott Banta
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