By Christi Sodano

Could kelp– a type of brown seaweed —fuel your gas tank?

Researchers are bringing us one step closer to this alternative energy source with a process that uses a bacterium commonly found in our gut to metabolize brown algae into ethanol.

The Bio Architecture Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, is using genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to break down difficult-to-digest algae into useable ethanol. A laboratory team reports on the results in this week’s issue of Science magazine.

The program, still in research phases, will be expanding in the near future to study the economic impact of using algae in large-scale ethanol production.

So far, plant-to-ethanol fuel conversion has emphasized land crops, such as corn or sugarcane. But now, researchers hope large-scale conversion of brown algae into ethanol could help meet the demand for sustainable fuels without hiking prices up by competing for food crops…

…The issue with ethanol compared to gasoline is one of volumetric efficiency as well as energy efficiency, said Michael Wang, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratories near Lemont.

Although ethanol only has two-thirds the amount of energy of gasoline, each unit of ethanol packs a little more punch compared to gasoline because it offers a higher octane fuel even if it isn’t as fuel efficient.

The second prong of the debate questions the actual energy yields from the ethanol-dedicated corn.

“Last year, 40 percent of corn grown in the U.S. was used for ethanol production,” Wang said, which translates to 14 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011.

Compared to gasoline, these 14 billion gallons of ethanol only represent 9.3 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent. So ethanol accounted for an estimated 7 percent of the gasoline used in the U.S., Wang said…

Continue reading at Medill Reports Chicago…

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