Biofuel technology is getting a boost from unconventional sources

Understanding insect and mammal digestion is helping scientists develop tools for biofuel production.

The process of converting plant feedstocks into biofuels relies on biological processes. This means that humans are utilizing natural occurring processes to make valuable energy products such as alcohols (ethanol). Making alcohol is not new; we’ve been using naturally occurring organisms (yeast) for thousands of years in making products like beer and wine. Using alcohol to fuel internal combustion engines is not new either. George Washington Carver and Henry Ford were both early supporters of using ethanol to fuel some of the country’s first automobiles about 100 years ago.

Fast forward to the 21 Century, scientists are developing processes and organisms to improve our production of alcohol (ethanol) from sustainable feedstocks such as plant biomass. Many new technologies are being used commercially today. However, according to Michigan State University Extension, there is a strong need for continued research to improve ethanol yield and process efficiencies.

Mariam Sticklen, research scientist at Michigan State University, has developed a genetic trait within a corn plant that causes an enzyme to be grown in the corn plant cells that aid in the use of the corn stalk as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock. The enzyme was sourced from microbes in the rumen (stomach) of a cow. Since the digestive system of a cow extracts energy from plant biomass, it can also aid in the conversion of plant cellulose into simple sugars in an ethanol production facility.

Scientists at Purdue University have also taken a queue from Mother Nature in understanding how to release energy from plant based feedstocks. Michael Scharf’s research helped to understand how termites can extract energy from wood as a food source. His work focused on the digestion of wood products by the insects. He found that gene expression of the termites and protists, an organism living in the gut of the termite, change based on the diet of the termite. This work may help future research projects to understand the breakdown of biomass and extract sugars to produce biofuels.

These examples show that we can benefit by learning more about what is right in front of us. At the same time, other scientists are busy creating new organisms and optimizing other organisms to get to the same end, producing biofuels that are environmentally and economically sustainable. No matter which direction the research takes, if it replaces petroleum with a clean burning, minimal carbon input and local fuel, we all win.

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