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Keywords:

  • biodiesel;
  • bioelectricity;
  • bioenergy;
  • biohydrogen;
  • methane;
  • microbial fuel cell;
  • microorganisms;
  • photosynthesis

Abstract

Global warming can be slowed, and perhaps reversed, only when society replaces fossil fuels with renewable, carbon-neutral alternatives. The best option is bioenergy: the sun's energy is captured in biomass and converted to energy forms useful to modern society. To make a dent in global warming, bioenergy must be generated at a very high rate, since the world today uses ∼10 TW of fossil-fuel energy. And, it must do so without inflicting serious damage on the environment or disrupting our food supply. While most bioenergy options fail on both counts, several microorganism-based options have the potential to produce large amounts of renewable energy without disruptions. In one approach, microbial communities convert the energy value of various biomass residuals to socially useful energy. Biomass residuals come from agricultural, animal, and a variety of industrial operations, as well as from human wastes. Microorganisms can convert almost all of the energy in these wastes to methane, hydrogen, and electricity. In a second approach, photosynthetic microorganisms convert sunlight into biodiesel. Certain algae (eukaryotes) or cyanobacteria (prokaryotes) have high lipid contents. Under proper conditions, these photosynthetic microorganisms can produce lipids for biodiesel with yields per unit area 100 times or more than possible with any plant system. In addition, the non-lipid biomass can be converted to methane, hydrogen, or electricity. Photosynthetic microorganisms do not require arable land, an advantage because our arable land must be used to produce food. Algae or cyanobacteria may be the best option to produce bioenergy at rates high enough to replace a substantial fraction of our society's use of fossil fuels. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2008;99: 203–212. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.