An illustration of the fermenting bacteria.

Illinois team develops gas-fixing bacteria to create common chemicals

Bacteria are used to make a lot of household products and consumables, including yogurt and beer, via fermentation. Researchers from tech firm LanzaTech and Northwestern University, both in Illinois, are using bacteria for a fermentation process to make common industrial chemicals from carbon dioxide instead of fossil fuels. 

This fermentation process creates isopropyl alcohol and acetone. Isopropyl alcohol commonly is made from propene, a fossil fuel byproduct, and isopropyl alcohol can be oxidized to form acetone. Both are used in a plethora of products and industrial processes, including hand sanitizer, nail polish remover, and oil spill clean-up. 

The researchers’ pilot project avoids fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas generation for industrial processes in addition to removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

“By harnessing our capacity to partner with biology to make what is needed, where and when it is needed, on a sustainable and renewable basis, we can begin to take advantage of the available CO2 to transform the bioeconomy,” Michael Jewett, Northwestern professor, said in a news release.

LanzaTech engineered the bacteria, which were reprogrammed to ferment CO2 to make isopropyl alcohol and acetone. Previous attempts to generate this type of gas-fixing bacteria didn’t offer a result that could adequately scale up to be practical for use in industrial settings.

The research team believes these bacteria strains can be used efficiently at an industrial scale. They say the pilot project demonstrates that sustainable, highly efficient chemical production is possible and the concept can be applied to carbon-neutral manufacturing for a variety of chemicals.

“Today, most of our commodity chemicals are derived exclusively from new fossil resources such as oil, natural gas or coal,” said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren. “The acetone and IPA pathways developed will accelerate the development of other new products by closing the carbon cycle for their use in multiple industries.”