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Replacing Crude Oil by Renewable Sugar through a Cell-free Synthetic Biology Technology

Y.-H.P. Zhang and J.A. Rollin
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, US

Keywords: sugar fuel cell vehicle, enhancing energy conversion efficiency, synthetic biology


“What will replace oil and when” is one of the central questions for the coming sustainability revolution. Since approximately 70% of crude oil is used for the transportation sector in the USA, this question would be interpreted as “what renewable energy source will be sufficient to drive tomorrow’s vehicles”. Several special requirements for the transportation sector have been met, for example, high energy storage capacity in a small container (e.g., ~50 liters), high power output (e.g., ~20-100 kW per vehicle), affordable fuel costs (e.g., $~20/GJ), affordable vehicle, low costs for rebuilding the relevant infrastructure, fast charging or refilling of the fuel, safety, and so on. In this talk, we will present a novel idea – sugar hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (sugar car) because of a new technology called cell-free synthetic enzymatic pathway biotransformation (SyPaB). SyPaB is implementation of complicated biochemical reactions by in vitro assembly of numerous enzymes, called enzyme cocktail. SyPaB has clear advantages over microbial fermentation, such as high product yield, fast reaction rate, easy control, and so on. The sugar car concept is based on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, where a big hydrogen container will be replaced by a small sugar container and an on-board bioreformer containing the enzyme cocktails. Our biomass-to-wheel efficiency analysis suggested that sugar car would have similar efficiency to battery electric vehicles and near four times more efficient than cellulosic ethanol-internal combustion engines. A number of obstacles to commercialization of SyPaB and sugar car are being addressed by international collaborators. A small fraction of the USA biomass resource (e.g., 5%) would be sufficient to replace crude oil.
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