Ames, Iowa – A professor at Iowa State University has developed a bio-based process for producing a fuel additive that is currently made from petroleum.

Thomas Bobik, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, invented a process for manufacturing isobutene by identifying a new, natural enzyme that produces the fuel organically.

Bobik said that once more research is completed, there could be a huge benefit to the biofuels industry. “I would emphasize that we are very early on in the process,” Bobik said. “But isobutene has some special properties that could have a big impact.”

The enzyme, which is undergoing patent applications, makes it possible to convert the glucose found naturally in plants to make isobutene, a gas used to produce chemicals, fuel additives, adhesives, plastics and synthetic rubber.

Isobutene can be chemically converted to isooctane, which could be used to replace the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether, which can be environmentally harmful. Isooctane is used in gasoline to prevent engine knock, but is currently produced from petroleum products.

A current problem is that production of the isobutene takes too long; research is ongoing to improve the enzyme’s activity so it can become commercially viable. Bobik said that progress is being made rapidly and that motorists might be using the bio-based ingredient in their vehicles within ten years.

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