Laura van Niftrik
Laura van Niftrik

How do you create sustainable fuel?

Hydrogen, biofuel and electric vehicles; there are more forms of renewable fuel than ever. You probably wouldn’t expect it, but certain bacteria can make clean fuels too. They produce the fuel hydrazine while processing waste water, which can be used for a variety of purposes, including as rocket fuel.

Bacteria are used in processing waste water from factories and sewers. ‘Anammox bacteria’ extract harmful chemicals like ammonia from waste water and turn them into nitrogen gas. They use the energy produced in the process to grow. Microbiologist Laura van Niftrik and her team discovered that the bacteria produce a certain type of fuel themselves as a by-product in the process product, and this can be used as rocket fuel.

In addition to rocket fuel, this fuel, hydrazine, has a host of other applications, including as a foaming agent, in optical electronics and in the production of pesticides and antidepressants. Chemical production of hydrazine is not particularly sustainable, as it takes a lot of energy to produce hydrazine like this. However, according to the researchers, the fact that the anammox bacteria produces fuel while processing waste water is an important discovery.

Laura van Niftrik has been researching bacteria and viruses for years. "We often only look at people, animals and plants. However, bacteria are the essence of life; even though we can’t see them with the naked eye, they’re fundamental to the world."

This discovery is just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming years, Van Niftrik will explore whether hydrazine has the potential to be produced sustainably with this method in the future. "We still know very little about the world of bacteria, and we have a huge amount of work to do as biologists. But the potential is massive," says Van Niftrik.

The research Van Niftrik helms is extensive and intensive, so very expensive. Would you like to help with making this research a reality and with taking an important step towards a sustainable world? Support the research.

100 Years of Radboud University

In 2023, Radboud University is celebrating 100 years of playing a significant role in the life of our students, researchers, and staff, as well as in the world around us. For more information on the University’s 100th anniversary, see here.