Used to manufacture plastics and polyester, and made out of petroleum and natural gas, ethylene is one of the "largest petrochemical produced by volume around the world." Researchers are working towards using genetically engineered cyanobacteria which could take sunlight and CO2 and "produce ethylene or ethylene derivatives," benefitting both the environment and current production energy requirements.
Ethylene already can be made without fossil fuels through the conversion of bioethanol, but that requires making bioethanol plus an additional step. Yu's research showed ethylene could be made directly and continuously from cyanobacterium. Normally, algae convert carbon dioxide during photosynthesis into biomass or sugars. But Yu's method redirected the cyanobacterium to use a portion of the CO2 to produce ethylene. Ethylene rises to fill the headspace of a sealed glass tube or photobioreactor and can be easily captured. Since his initial discovery in 2010, Yu has managed to increase the amount of ethylene produced in the laboratory by more than a thousand-fold, to 35 milligrams per liter per hour.
His goal is to reach 50 milligrams by the end of the year.
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