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Energy Breakthrough: Photosynthetic Bacterium Converts CO2 into Petrochemical and O2

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Scientists at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, have succeeded in turning carbon dioxide into ethylene, an energy-dense fuel and most widely produced feedstock for the petrochemical industry worldwide. The report was published online in the journal Energy & Environmental Science [1].

This is a major breakthrough in terms of a truly renewable and sustainable zero-carbon energy source; and perhaps especially in regenerating oxygen from carbon dioxide (although this aspect was not mentioned by the scientists themselves).


Ethylene (H2C=CH2) is made exclusively from fossil fuels in the largest CO2-emitting process in the industry. It is also the most widely produced feedstock for the chemical industry worldwide.  Ethylene is used in the synthesis of diverse plastics and textiles such as polyester. It has been used to produce high-grade ethanol for the past 50 years, and can be polymerized into gasoline.

A total of 132.9 million tons of ethylene was produced in 2010, with a projected 5 % growth annually through to 2015. Its manufacture involves steam cracking long chain hydrocarbons from petroleum or ethane. Oil supplies are finite and steam cracking generates large amounts of greenhouse gases: 1.5 - 3.0 tons of CO2 per ton of ethylene. The team led by Justin Ungerer have taken the first steps in devising a sustainable, carbon-neutral alternative by coaxing a bacterium to convert CO2 into ethylene.  
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