In a breakthrough, researchers claim to have discovered a method to make bacteria produce diesel on demand.
While the technology developed by the University of Exeter, with support from Shell, still faces many significant commercialisation challenges, the diesel, produced by special strains of E coli bacteria is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel.
Thus it does not need to be blended with petroleum products as is often required by bio-diesels derived from plant oils, researchers said.
This also means that the diesel can be used with current supplies in existing infrastructure because engines, pipelines and tankers do not need to be modified. Bio-fuels with these characteristics are being termed 'drop-ins'.
"Producing a commercial bio-fuel that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset," Professor John Love from Biosciences at the University of Exeter said.
"Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral bio-fuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
"Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect," Love said.
E coli bacteria naturally turn sugars into fat to build their cell membranes. Synthetic fuel oil molecules can be created by harnessing this natural oil production process.
Large scale manufacturing using E coli as the catalyst is already commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry and, although the bio-diesel is currently produced in tiny quantities in the laboratory, work will continue to see if this may be a viable commercial pathway to 'drop in' fuels.
"We are proud of the work being done by Exeter in using advanced biotechnologies to create the specific hydrocarbon molecules that we know will continue to be in high demand in the future," Rob Lee from Shell Projects & Technology said.