Fueling the Future


By Warren Mason
March 10, 2012

Dr. Markus Ribbe, an affable, highly respected University of California-Irvine biochemist, is truly amazed by the fame that has suddenly befallen him and his team of young researchers.

Dr. Ribbe, Chi Chung Li and Yilin Hu were locked in their UCI lab, exploring a little known bacterial enzyme’s ability to use nitrogen to form ammonia, when they stumbled upon the modified enzyme’s ability to convert carbon monoxide into fuel.

That enzyme, vanadium nitrogenase, which is prevalent in bacteria in soil and plant roots, as well as in industrial emissions, has always had great value in agriculture and farming.

By removing the nitrogen and feeding it carbon monoxide, a common industrial by-product and a strong inhibitor of nitrogen, Dr. Ribbe’s team found that the enzyme began forming short carbon chains, between two and three atoms long.

By creating those short carbon chains, the modified enzyme was making propane, the very substance whose bright blue flame fuels barbeque grills, heats homes and powers industrial vehicles across the globe.

“The fact that this system can take carbon monoxide and make new carbon-carbon bonds was very surprising and very interesting,” commented Dr. Ribbe.

Published in the August issue of the prestigious journal Science, their findings are the talk of the UCI campus, the international scientific community and the green movement worldwide.

That paper and its findings have made Dr. Ribbe and his team viral media sensations and research funding magnets.

Various periodicals led with lofty headlines that touted ‘Fuel From Thin Air,’ while burying the long, difficult investigative road confronting Dr. Ribbe well below the fold.

Dr. Ribbe worries that such overhyped media buzz has “fueled” outsized expectations, hype that commercial applications for his discovery may somehow be right around the corner and something he is clear to point out is simply not true.

While the biochemist concurs that this discovery may indeed have far-reaching, practical implications for the production of “all types of fuels,” he cautions that much work needs to be done before that becomes reality. Dr. Ribbe and fellow team member Chi Chung Li are quick to point out that any real-world applications “are at least a decade away.”

Jonas Peters, a fellow researcher at the California Institute of Technology, has said he believes Dr. Ribbe’s findings to be a profound discovery—one that will someday have crucial industrial implications.

There are many obstacles to overcome to get there, not the least of which is extracting the enzyme, which is extremely difficult, even in small quantities. According to Dr. Ribbe, it has only recently become possible to extract it in large quantities.

The key, he said, is “to eventually find a way to create longer, carbon-carbon chains by further modifying the enzyme, [and] then this could eventually lead to new methods for producing synthetic liquid fuels, including gasoline. Precisely how the chemistry works is far from clear. We are now focused on how to figure this out.”

Li, who is finishing his final year of graduate work at UCI, has been emboldened by the seemingly overnight recognition he, Hu and Dr. Ribbe have achieved. “This has been an amazing time for me,” said Li. “Most scientists spend their entire career working in relative anonymity, without any expectations this might happen. Markus is a hands-on leader who has taken us down a clear path. Our success has made it far easier for me to decide what to pursue once I graduate.”

If successful, the technique could possibly lead to cars at least partially powered by nothing but their own fumes, fumes that now pollute and are often deadly.

It seems even more far-fetched, but many scientists believe further development might even result in vehicles that would draw fuel from the air itself—thus the hyped headlines—yet Dr. Ribbe enthusiastically believes that is not only possible but indeed probable.

He laughs and readily admits that companies and foundations have taken note and are regularly at his UCI doorstep, funds in hand, offering to join the band. It’s something he never could have imagined only a year ago, yet something every heretofore unknown scientist must certainly welcome with open arms.

While fuel from emission fumes or even thin air may be a long way off, thanks to Dr. Ribbe and his growing UCI team, it’s no longer a pipe dream.

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