In labs across South Carolina, scientists are teaming up to find ways to use microbes to create a new fuel to replace gasoline in cars and light trucks.

The key components are as novel as they are unlikely: living microbes that, when stimulated with electricity, will turn carbon dioxide — the plentiful compound best known as a destructive greenhouse gas — into an alcohol-based fuel.

"This research will be focused mostly on the bench scale, and will provide insight into how to do it at the commercial production level," said Stephen Creager, chairman of Clemson University's chemistry department. "As with other biofuels, a scalable, reliable process, along with production costs and volumes will be the issues."

The research is part of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiative that involves scientists at South Carolina's research universities.

Clemson's contributors — electrochemist Creager and microbiologist Mike Henson, a research associate professor in the biological sciences department — are trying to determine the best mix of microorganisms and chemical reactions to ramp up the fuel-making process. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina are working on other pieces of the puzzle.

"This is a remarkable collaboration, leveraging the expertise and creativity of scientists from our research universities," Henson said. "Among the projects approved, ours does something unique by having all the principal investigators in one state: South Carolina."

Ethanol and butanol

The research could lead to an industrial process to produce light motor fuels that could replace gasoline without having to modify engines.

Ethanol is currently being used as such a fuel. However, the scientists have higher hopes for butanol, which they say could meet the needs of virtually all current passenger and other light vehicles. What's more, it could provide a dramatic boost for the economies of oil-dependent nations and reduce anxiety about fuel supplies from abroad.