It seems a bit far-fetched, producing fuel out of paper waste with the help of bacteria found in animal droppings. But it is exactly what Tulane University scientists in New Orleans have done. They managed to use a novel bacterial strain to convert cellulose directly into butanol, a biofuel that can serve as a substitute for gasoline.
Novel bacterial strain
The scientists really did not have to do much more than discover the bacterial strain. That they found it in animal droppings might seem a little strange, but is in fact no real surprise. Whereas the human digestive system is unable to break down cellulose, which is found in all green plants, many herbivores are able to convert cellulose into useful nutrients thanks to the bacteria living in there intestines. Once the bacterium was discovered all the scientist had to do was develop a method for using it to produce butanol.
What makes the new bacterial strain, dubbed TU-103, special is not just that it can produce butanol directly from cellulose but also its ability to survive in the presence of oxygen. Other previously discovered butanol-producing bacteria are killed by oxygen, making it quite expensive to use them to produce butanol since it has to happen in a controlled oxygen-free environment.
Better with less drawbacks
Currently the most used biofuel is ethanol, mostly made from corn or sugarcane. Two plants that are also used for consumption purposes, making bioethanol production infringe on food production. TU-103 however can use sources of cellulose, the most abundant organic material on Earth and not used for food. The United States alone are good for at least 323 million tons of cellulosic waste material.
Besides this positive impact on landfill waste, butanol is a better fuel than ethanol as well. Not only is it higher in energy, it can also be used to fuel existing motor vehicles without any modifications to the engine as opposed to ethanol.
On par with gasoline?
Will this finally be the discovery everybody was waiting for to put biofuel on par with gasoline pricewise? What does speak for the new method is that besides producing biofuel effectively it also has the potential to take care of a serious amount of waste.
© Jorn van Dooren | www.bitsofscience.org