Finding and optimizing the microorganisms that will do the work of converting carbon dioxide to butanol molecules using the electrons is the research challenge for the microbiologist. Henson must identify a microbe or microbes that not only produce the alcohol but also can thrive in an electrochemical environment. He has some candidates but more work must be done to find the best choice.

Sean Norman, an assistant professor and microbial ecologist at the University of South Carolina, will analyze the microbe's genes. His research aims to identify and optimize the genetic pathways that allow the microbes to produce biofuel and thrive — to create, enhance and grow a synthetic "microbiofuel-maker."

Creager and Harold May, a Medical University of South Carolina professor and the principal investigator for the project, teamed up on a similar experimental idea several years ago. When the Department of Energy recently sought groundbreaking biofuel research, the four scientists from the three universities applied for a grant.

"The idea is groundbreaking yet practical. We just need to figure out which pieces are the right ones and how they will fit together," Creager said.

The three-year, $2.3 million research project, begun last year, is one of 13 such projects funded by the energy departments' Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to explore alternate ways to make fuel out of existing and synthetic organisms.

Launched by U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, the grants are to spur leap-taking research that would optimize organisms to make energy-rich liquid fuels. The goal is develop fuels that "could be 10 times more efficient" than the existing biofuel (ethanol and biodiesel) technologies, according to ARPA-E's website.

South Carolina's project, "Electroalcoholgenesis: Bioelectrochemical Reduction of CO2 to Butanol," is to "develop an electrolysis cell that will employ microbes that can use electricity to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol and butanol."

The MUSC, USC and Clemson researchers are presenting a progress report on their research at the ARPA-E annual summit meeting in Washington, D.C., this month.