Biofuel challenges: Some green fuels can become contaminated with the wrong microbes

Biofuel is seen as a promising alternative to fossil fuels when it comes to serving as a viable source of energy, and for good reason. It offers a number of tremendous benefits, not the least of which is the fact that it’s much more environmentally friendly than current standard fuels. For this reason, its adoption is being pushed heavily and it’s seen as the future in places such as the U.S. Air Force.

The problem is that there are difficulties that are present along the path to success of biofuels. Case in point: New research has shown that harmful microorganisms seem to thrive on biofuels, particularly on their fatty acids, and after a while they end up causing everything to turn into a slimy, unfixable mess.

This phenomenon, which has been supposedly known to many experts on the subject as microbial fuel fouling, is a type of fuel contamination wherein certain microorganisms can lead to huge problems if left untreated. In the case of the air force, their problems here could lead to clogged or fouled equipment, or worse, engine failure. You can imagine how big of a problem that would be.

According to Frederick J. Passman, biocontamination of fossil fuels is not uncommon at all. “Biodeterioration of fossil fuels has been known and studies for more than a century,” he explained. As a consultant who specializes in controlling microbial contamination, he is an expert on the subject that has a clear view on it. (Related: Dead zone-forming algae could be used to enrich soils and produce biofuel, say scientists.)

It is said that the earliest study on the matter was first published some time in 1895, and it focused on the biocontamination of gasoline. And then most of the follow-up studies on it were published in the microbiology literature, instead of “the sort of journals likely to be read by petroleum engineers and organic chemists,” added Passman.

Meanwhile, Wendy J. Goodson, a lead researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is closely studying the effects of microoorganisms on the current crop of Air Force weapons systems and fueling infrastructure. She is working closely with a number of collaborators who are looking to fully understand fuel biocontamination’s effects, the factors that promote it, and better ways of detecting and countering it.

According to Goodson, fuel maintenance specialists were already aware of biocontamination due to certain microorganisms, but that it was treated pretty much as a non-issue which “resided in the background of people’s knowledge and concern.” Now that it has been recognized as a real problem, perhaps it can finally be addressed properly.

One potential key to unlocking the solution to this problem is a surprisingly common element of life on Earth. Evidently, the one thing that plenty of cases of biocontamination of fuels have in common is none other than water. Indeed, as Passman remarks, it’s for a simple reason: Water is a known essential factor for microbial activity. Current method of prevention for its accumulation in fuel systems is difficult, but perhaps it could aid in the prevention of biocontamination.

Oscar N. Ruiz, a biologist that also works in the AFRL, is of the opinion that biocontamination is a problem that needs to be “cured” like a sickness. In his own words, “This type of biodegradation is like a fuel disease.” In other words, like any other disease, all it ultimately take to end up is finding the right type of “medicine,” and they are working to find it.

Learn more about other problems in the search for alternative energy sources at

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