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A greener route for ethylene

From plastic bags to nylon to fuels, ethylene is a key ingredient in a vast

variety of production processes. This widespread use has made ethylene
the most produced organic compound in the world.
The chemical industry needs ethylene, and this demand is currently being
kept at bay by its production from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are finite.
Moreover, the process plays a role in climate change; taking carbon thats
locked underground and releasing some into the atmosphere. Ethylene
production represents the largest CO2-emitting process in the chemical
The case is clear. We need a renewable route to produce ethylene- to
meet the ever growing global demand and reduce the significant
environmental impact.
Ethylene is produced naturally by plants and some microbes that live with
plants. Bioethylene could supplement or replace fossil fuels as a base in
chemical industry, using renewable sources of carbon such as waste
biomass (plant matter) and CO2. A reviewpublished in Biotechnology for
Biofuels this month discusses the potential and challenges associated with
the microbial-based route of bioethylene production. The researchers from
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Louisiana Lafayette,
and University of Colorado boulder (USA) provide the first literature
review on ethylene-forming enzyme and its potential for bioethylene
There are great prospects for this technology, for example algae. Algae
draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to feed into photosynthesis. Progress has
been made recently at NREL, where a cyanobacterium (blue-green alga)
has been engineered with the ethylene-forming enzyme to produce
ethylene continuously from CO2. This could mean comparatively saving of
six tons of CO2emissions for every ton of bioethylene produced.
There are still many questions that loom over this technology, the most
obvious being how does ethylene-forming enzyme work? We need to
develop specialized microbes that efficiently produce ethylene and
prospects, Eckert and colleagues believe that synthetic biology tools will
speed up the progress toward higher productivity and lower cost in
bioethylene development.
This technology is still in its infancy, though its potential is undoubtedly

25 Mar 2014 by Emma Laycock