Bacteria to biofuel: just add sunshine

This phase of the project has been completed, for information about our continuing efforts please see the Solar-Powered Biofactory project.

Biodesign has some good news for the planet and consumers. There may be a better biofuel on the horizon — bacteria-based biodiesel.

Scientists at the Biodesign Institute are producing biofuel from cyanobacterial photobioreactors.

ASU researchers are optimizing tiny, photosynthetic bacteria to produce a sustainable, high-yield fuel that can be used in conventional engines.

The bacteria are grown in transparent tubes that could be constructed virtually anywhere there is sufficient sunlight, so the project is called “Tubes in the Desert.” Bacteria-based biofuel offers distinct benefits: 

  • Higher yield per volume; an estimated hundred-fold increase over current biofuels. The reason: bacteria double in volume every 24-48 hours — faster than any plant can grow. 
  • Does not require arable land; tube “crops” can be located anywhere there is sunlight
  • Does not compete with food or commodity crops 
  • Requires less water than plant-based biofuels
  • Does not require fertilizer, so eliminates soil depletion/contamination concerns
  • Has a simpler genetic structure than plants, resulting in higher quality control and virtually no waste
  • Allows less costly processing
  • Is carbon-neutral. Like a plant, the bacteria use carbon dioxide for growth  
  • Can be located in urban as well as rural areas, reducing transportation costs and associated environmental impact.


The first phase of the project was funded in part by Science Foundation Arizona. This two-year effort resulted in significant advances in identifying new strains of photosynthetic bacteria with high-yield potential, and included the design and construction of a sophisticated photobioreactor system to optimize growth. The photobioreactor, housed on a rooftop at ASU's Tempe campus, has mathematical modeling tools applied for systems analysis and is the first step in exploring the industrial scale feasibility of this approach.

tubes.pngThe bacteria generating the biofuel is grown in transparent tubes.

The next phase of the project will be construction of a 2.5-acre field-scale system located near a local power plant. Funding for construction is currently being sought. The location will provide a secure site and will enable engineering assessment of the photobioreactor system using flue gas and water recycled from the power plant for producing the bacterial biomass. We anticipate this second phase to validate readiness for commercialization, and--in collaboration with industry partners--create a setting in which dramatic advances can be realized in a relatively short time.

Project funding: BP, Science Foundation Arizona

Collaborators: BP, CH2M-Hill, APS