Research Highlight

Bacteria help produce low-sulphur fossil fuels

doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.35 Published online 21 March 2018

Novel bacterial strains can help produce low-sulphur fossil fuels by removing sulphur bound to an organic compound found in fossil fuels1. This is an eco-friendly process for making low-sulphur fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal, reducing their potential to release sulphur-based pollutants into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels contain sulphur, which contributes to environmental pollution by emitting sulphur oxides and creating acid rain. Existing methods that utilise micro-organisms cannot efficiently remove organic sulphur from fossil fuels.

In search of a better way to make low-sulphur fossil fuels, scientists from the CSIR-Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology in Bhubaneswar, India, led by Umakanta Subudhi, identified four sulphur-eating bacterial strains and then explored their potential to remove sulphur from dibenzothiophene, a sulphur-binding organic compound found in fossil fuels.

When the bacteria were cultured with dibenzothiophene, this sulphur-bearing compound entered the bacterial cells, where enzymes converted it into a sulphur-free compound in a four-step process. Unlike previously used bacteria, which removed between 70% and 90% of the sulphur, the novel bacterial strains removed 99% of the sulphur, suggesting their potential to make low-sulphur fossil fuels.  

The new bacterial strains could potentially be used to remove sulphur from petrochemicals and coal with an energy-saving process, says Subudhi.


1. Bhanjadeo, M. M. et al. Differential desulfurization of dibenzothiophene by newly identified MTCC strains: influence of operon array. PLoS. ONE. 13 (3): e0192536 (2018).