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ARPA-E Q&A: Transforming How We Get Our Fuel

October 23, 2013 - 12:13pm

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ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Ramon Gonzalez focuses on using microorganisms to convert natural gas into liquid fuel. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow, Rice University.

ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Ramon Gonzalez focuses on using microorganisms to convert natural gas into liquid fuel. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow, Rice University.

Editor’s Note: Below is an edited version of a Q&A with ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Ramon Gonzalez, who focuses on using microorganisms to convert natural gas into liquid fuel. For more on Dr. Gonzalez’s thoughts on how ARPA-E is working to transform the fuels we use to drive, check out the full transcript on ARPA-E’s site.

Question: What was your background and experience before coming to ARPA-E?

Ramon Gonzalez: My postdoctoral research is in the emerging field of “metabolic engineering.” This type of engineering leverages the metabolism of microorganisms to make them do something that they otherwise wouldn’t do in nature. I started my career in academia at Iowa State University, which at the time was one of the few places interested in metabolic engineering, and then I eventually moved to Rice University, where I started a lab for Metabolic Engineering and Synthetic & Systems Biology. Around the same time, I also started a company called Glycos Biotechnologies, which focuses on the production of chemicals through fermentation of glycerol -- an abundant and inexpensive carbon source.

Q: Why did you decide to join the ARPA-E team?

RG: When I learned about ARPA-E, it felt like the perfect fit considering my mixed background of academia, R&D and entrepreneurial activities. In fact, developing a program at ARPA-E is a lot like building a startup but at a much larger scale.

Q: Can you tell us about REMOTE (short for Reducing Emissions using Methaotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy) and what the program is trying to do?

RG: REMOTE is about the “bioconversion” of methane, the primary component of natural gas, into a fuel that is a liquid at room temperature. Bioconversion uses micoorganisms to change organic chemicals into another form. The goal is to make the conversion cost effective and with a carbon footprint that is equal to or better than conventional transportation fuels. Although similar technologies currently exist, they require high capital expenditures as well as massive and immobile rigs. The few technologies that can be deployed on a small scale are energy inefficient and emit a lot of carbon dioxide. By contrast, the bioconversion processes we’re considering can be deployed on a small scale with much lower capital expenditure requirements. Better still, they have the potential to be carbon neutral.

Q: How is REMOTE different from some of the earlier biofuel programs?

RG: REMOTE is special because it takes natural gas, an abundant domestic energy source, and converts it to a usable fuel for today’s vehicles without the introduction of additional energy or the emission of carbon dioxide.

Q: What are the prospects for commercialization of any projects in this program?

RG: Commercialization is extremely promising. Activating the carbon-hydrogen bond in methane has the potential to be highly transformative. There is evidence that it can be done, but previous approaches haven’t yielded any advancements. If we succeed, the market is already there for these solutions -- we won’t have to push it or make a case for it. The industry is already intently waiting for these advancements.

Q: What gets you excited about REMOTE and why should others be excited?

RG: Petroleum is the primary source of transportation fuel in the U.S., so we’re forced to heavily rely on imports. If REMOTE is successful, we could drastically reduce the amount of petroleum used each year as a country, transitioning to a domestically-sourced natural gas-based infrastructure. This would be truly transformative, offering a legitimate path to energy independence and making a considerable dent in the trade deficit.

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