Biofuel for jet fuel: how bioengineering is transforming modern air travel

This year’s International Biotechnology Symposium (IBS 2016) will explore how current bioengineering research could potentially transform modern air travel, to be held in Melbourne this October.

As part of the Symposium’s Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology stream, Dr Claudia Vickers, Queensland Government Accelerate Fellow at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (University of Queensland), will discuss Engineering microbial production of isoprenoid-based biofuels and biochemicals.

In her research, Dr Vickers has developed a number of approaches to better harness isoprenoids, an extremely large and diverse group of natural compounds.

Isoprenoids, also known as terpenes and terpenoids, have a range of industrial uses, which include specialised applications in medical biotechnology, such as anti-cancer and anti-malarial pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals; through to bulk chemicals, including food colours, rubbers, agricultural chemicals, and fuel replacements.

One of the most lucrative uses for isoprenoids is in fragrances and perfumes, and researchers believe certain types of this special compound could be a key ingredient for biofuel. Biofuel is a liquid fuel derived from non-petroleum sources (such as waste plant and animal matter) that has a reduced impact on the environment. This has important implications for the modern air travel industry, as biofuel could potentially be used as an alternative to jet fuel.

As worldwide demand for jet fuel has increased since the 1980s and consumption has more than tripled in the last 30 years, air transport now constitutes one per cent of manmade carbon emissions and there is a great need to find jet fuel alternatives.

Despite the usefulness and potential of isoprenoids in industry, they are a difficult compound to obtain. Extracting isoprenoids from natural sources is challenging and their chemical synthesis is often unfeasible. This means that the type of isoprenoid needed for jet fuel is not naturally produced in large enough amounts to meet the current demands of commercial jet fuel.

Chemical structure of the terpenoid isopentenyl pyrophosphate, an intermediate in the HMG-CoA reductase pathway.

Dr Vickers has developed a number of approaches that facilitate access to this compound, enhancing isoprenoids’ usefulness to industry and at the same time, reduce industry’s impact on the environment.


Chemical structure of the terpenoid isopentenyl
pyrophosphate, an intermediate in the HMG-CoA reductase

In her research, Dr Vickers has developed tools and techniques to help understand metabolic regulation and control cellular behaviour. This is a type of metabolic engineering, a process used by chemists and biologists to optimise a cell’s production of a particular substance. For example, in Dr Vickers’ work, this includes injecting large amounts of DNA onto a specific chromosome.

“In the future we will be using these technologies to make all sorts of useful biochemicals, helping to transition from a petrochemical economy to a sustainable, environmentally-friendly biochemical economy,” says Dr Vickers.

In addition to transforming modern air travel, engineering these special compounds has many more applications in agriculture, household products, and pharmaceuticals. Thanks to Dr Vickers’ research, isoprenoids could one day be the basis to many different sustainable and environmentally-friendly products.

IBS 2016, hosted by AusBiotech and held as part of the International BioFest 2016, will present the most advanced issues in biotechnology, green chemistry and its related fields, which will be discussed by a selected group of international speakers and lecturers at the Melbourne Convention Centre. AusBiotech is Australia’s biotechnology organisation, working on behalf of members to provide representation and services to promote the global growth of Australian biotechnology. 

Dr Vickers will deliver her presentation in Breakout 19: Biocatalysis. View the program to find out more.