Turning the emissions of power stations, steel mills and garbage dumps into liquid fuels has been demonstrated by MIT researchers using engineered microbes.

The process has been successfully trialled at a pilot plant in China and a much bigger facility is now planned.

Energy-dense liquids are vital to transport but are currently derived from oil, a fossil fuel, and transport produces about a quarter of the global carbon emissions driving climate change. Biofuels have been seen as possible replacement, but current biofuels compete with food production and have been blamed for driving up food prices.

Using waste gases to create low-carbon liquid fuels would be a major advance in the battle against global warming if they could be made at low cost and large scale. Another company expects to be using different microbes to produce fuel from steel plants in Belgium and China in 2017.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) process uses bacteria to convert the waste gases into acetic acid – vinegar – then an engineered yeast to produce an oil. “It is quite an extraordinary story,” said Prof Gregory Stephanopoulos, an expert in chemical engineering and biotechnology at MIT in the US.

“It started just four to five years ago with a post-doctoral project funded by the US Energy Department. We are looking at a very fast timescale [of development],”, he said. “We have pieced the system together into an integrated system, where you put gas in one end and get a liquid fuel out of the other end.” The research was published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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