Scientists at University of California, Irvine have discovered that an enzyme known to live in the soil around soybeans can create short carbon chains, commonly known as propane, from carbon monoxide. This could be a stepping stone toward one day using it to produce gasoline, enabling cars to run off of their own fumes, or even straight-up air.
The enzyme is found in the soil at the base of nitrogen-fixing plants such as legumes and a few others. Officially named vanadium nitrogenase, the enzyme usually converts nitrogen gas into ammonia, but has now been shown to produce propane from carbon monoxide under certain conditions. When the usual nitrogen and oxygen were taken out of the testing environment and replaced with carbon monoxide, the enzyme reverted to creating short carbon chains with its new resource. Carbon monoxide is a toxic industrial byproduct of any combustion operation, including the one going on under the hood of your car. Although this may (very) eventually spawn a clean way to produce fuel, it will still be a carbon-based fuel that is burned, which doesn’t help reduce our carbon footprint.
The organism that produces the enzyme is a common soil bacteria that has been studied for years. Only recently has this new behavior been discovered due to the development of new technology for extracting, growing, and storing the enzyme. Farmers have had a long relationship with the bacteria because it turns useless nitrogen into building blocks for other plants. Now researchers want to use it to make synthetic liquid fuels.