A microbial fuel cell can be used to turn carbon dioxide into an alcohol that will power a car engine.

It's a way of using a form of pollution to make relatively non-polluting fuel.

A project at the Medical University of South Carolina just won a $2.3 million federal grant to develop its microbial fuel cell project, one of 37 projects nationwide to divide $107 million in electro-fuel renewable energy grants.

The project's approach to using bacterial microbes as a catalyst to make fuel is so new that only a half-dozen or so projects are under way in the world, said Hal May, a microbiologist at MUSC who's taking part in the research.

Without the funding, the project couldn't proceed, he said. It will pay to add four or five lab staffers and help pay his microbiology work.

The grant also will fund electrochemistry work at Clemson University and a University of South Carolina study of the evolution and workings of the genes of the microbes.

"This is huge for this project. We've got the chance to dive into this and be the first in the world to make it happen," he said.

"They're asking for people to push the envelope. They're basically asking people to make fuel from air. I have various pieces of this operation in the lab. I propose to put them all together."