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NREL Research Helps Convert Overabundant Methane into Useful Products

March 18, 2016

Photo of a fermentation vessel cultivating our bacteria to produce lactic acid.

Using fermentation vessels such as the one pictured here, NREL researchers have discovered how to cultivate genetically engineered methanotrophic bacteria to produce lactic acid, a high-value precursor to bioplastics. Photo by Holly Smith, NREL

Methane is Earth's second most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) after carbon dioxide, and its negative impact on the atmosphere is many times greater. Human activity, such as the use of fossil fuels, is responsible for the majority of methane, and that percentage is increasing as the population grows.

Researchers have long sought effective ways to reduce the amount of harmful methane emissions. In addition, methane's high volume makes it a subject for potential commercial viability. The biological production of fuels and chemicals from methane represents a means of decreasing GHG emissions and, at the same time, utilizing an abundant-yet-underutilized, high-energy gas, making the process the subject of a promising new NREL study, published in Nature's Scientific Reports.

To date, advances in biological methane conversion (biocatalysis) have been constrained by the slow growth and limited genetic manipulability of natural methane-converting microbes known as methanotrophs. In response, NREL researchers developed novel genetic tools and leveraged the recent environmental isolation of a bacterium called Methylomicrobium buryatense, an industrially promising methanotrophic biocatalysis, to facilitate the bioconversion of methane to lactate, a high-value platform chemical used in the production of bioplastics.

This transformative research opens the door to developing an array of engineered, methane-converting bacteria and strategies that lead to "green," high-volume chemicals and fuels derived from methane, while also mitigating GHG emissions.