Until recently, cellulosic ethanol represented the most likely biofuel that would not require more energy to make than it generated. With emerging information about biofuels derived from algae, that has changed.
Fuel’s Gold: Termites point way to new dawn of bio-energy
November 22, 2007 (AFP)
Andreas Brune, Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology; Eddy Rubin, director, Joint Genome Institute (JGI)/US Department of Energy; ccientists from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), biofuels company Verenium Corp., the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) of Costa Rica and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
Might the humble termite soon determine the kind of ethanol that fuels our cars? Or was that yesterday's best bet?
Termites capacity to digest fiber comes from intestinal enzymes that may point the way to commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol. Understanding the genetic sequence of the microbes that produce the enzymes may allow scientists to reproduce the enzymatic processes.
- Research findings published November 21 in “Nature.”
- “First generation” ethanol is produced from well-known enzymatic fermentation and distillation of simple carbohydrates in corn and sugar plants not requiring much cellulose breakdown.
- “Second generation” cellulosic ethanol not been produced at commercial scale economically because of the difficulty of breaking down the cellulose.
- Gene researchers are studying enzymes in the lowest part of termites’ digestive tract, the “third paunch.”.
- The researchers are studying bulbous-headed Central American worker termites.
- Microbes in the termites’ intestines exude enzymes capable of releasing nutritional value from the woodiest fibers.
- Breaking down wood and woody cellulose fibers in non-food plants at economically competitive cost would allow production of ethanol that would (theoretically) not impact food crops or food crop prices.
- The research, though vital, is only a first step.
The numbers don't lie. (click to enlarge)
- Andreas Brune, Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology: "In theory, [termites] could transform an A4-sized sheet of paper into two liters (1.8 pints) of hydrogen…"
- Eddy Rubin, director, Joint Genome Institute (JGI)/US Department of Energy: "Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce biofuels more efficiently and economically is another story…To get there, we must define the set of genes with key functional attributes for the breakdown of cellulose and this study represents an essential step along that path."