Sweet Success: UT Engineer Uses Sugar and Yeast to Make Biofuel

Hal Alper and his team at work in his research lab at the Cockrell School of Engineering

You wouldn’t normally put sugar on your toast, but when it comes to renewable energy, sugar and yeast make a surprisingly good team. Assistant chemical engineering professor Hal Alper and his students have pioneered a process that combines ordinary table sugar and genetically engineered yeast to produce a new biofuel.

This type of fermentation process, similar to that of wine and beer, puts ordinary table sugar to work on the genetically engineered cells. The oil levels they’re able to achieve, Alper says, make this process a novel one.

“Our yields are substantially higher, which makes it much closer to being a commercial type of process with this technology,” he says.

The researchers tested different conditions for growing yeast and modified it in such a way that, if replicated on an industrial scale, it could solve issues presented by alternative technologies. As a renewable source of energy, it could reduce our dependence on petroleum products. In addition, their methods could allow production to be portable—since yeast can be grown in steel tanks regardless of location—therefore making it decentralized and local.

Alper and his team hope their research can contribute to the many applications for oils, such as in fuel, lubricants, and even nutritional supplements. They continue to improve upon their methods to see how far they can push the cell to produce even higher amounts of oil, and how they can diversify the chemical platform.

“I really believe a lot in this organism,” Alper says. “I think we’ve seen that there is a lot of untapped potential from this organism to really produce significant amounts of key chemicals and intermediates.”

Hal Alper and his team at work in his lab. Photo courtesy the Cockrell School of Engineering.


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