Researchers make bioplastics from algae, sunlight

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DAVIS, CALIF. — Researchers at the University of California, Davis, are using the biological reactions in blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, to produce the raw materials needed to create fuels and plastics. With concern growing over the use of food crops in the production of fuels and bioplastics, the new technique could free up agricultural land for food production while making use of previously unexploited wetlands.

Working with support from Japanese chemicals group Asahi Kasei, the UC Davis team has used cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into the chemical feedstock 2,3 butanediol.

"Most chemical feedstocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources," said Shota Atsumi, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis.

The cyanobacteria use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide and sunlight into chemicals with carbon-carbon bonds. The UC Davis researchers, working with Hisanari Yoneda, a visiting researcher from Asahi Kasei, identified enzymes that produced the reactions they were looking for and introduced these enzymes' DNA into the cells of cyanobacteria.

Presently, it takes three weeks to produce 2.4 grams of 2,3 butanediol per litre of growth material, which is the highest yield yet produced for any chemical grown from cyanobacteria; enough for Atsumi to consider the potential for commercial development. Atsumi hopes that further experimentation may increase yields and produce different chemical feedstocks; and commercial partners are exploring how the technology can be scaled.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of obtaining a quarter of industrial chemicals from biological processes by 2025.