In recent years, there has been increasing interest in biofuels due to growing concerns about global warming and rising oil prices. Biofuels are generally made by using chemicals, fermentation, and heat to break down the starches, sugars, and other molecules in plants to produce a fuel that can be used by vehicles. However, growing crops, making fertilizers and pesticides, and processing the plants into biofuel requires so much energy that it's questionable whether biofuels are really as environmentally friendly as they might seem on the surface. Plenty of research is already under way to figure out ways to make biofuel production more efficient with the help of microorganisms. Here are just a few examples.
- Companies like Luca Technologies and Next Fuel are investigating the potential for microbial methane production from coal. Their approach is to stimulate native microorganisms that feed on underground hydrocarbon deposits to produce more methane. This could make it possible to extract fuel from coal reserves that have been too expensive to mine. [url]
- Researchers at Purdue University are studying how termite digestion could help improve biofuel production. They found that protists, which live in the termite's gut, may play an important role in the insect's digestion of woody material. Further research could lead to finding enzymes that could one day be used to help improve biofuel production. [url]
- Researchers at UC Berkeley have created a biodiesel fuel using a fermentation process that was once used to make explosives in World War I. The process uses a bacterium called Clostridium acetobutylicum (also known as the "Weizmann Organism") to ferment sugar from various sources -- including corn, sugar cane, molasses, woody biomass, or plant biomass -- and produces acetone, butanol, and ethanol. The fermentation products are then converted into a mix of hydrocarbons that are similar to those in diesel fuel. The resulting fuel burns as well as petroleum-based fuel and has more energy per gallon than ethanol. [url]
- Researchers at UC San Diego have demonstrated for the first time that marine algae can also be used to produce biofuels like fresh water algae. They genetically engineered the marine alga Dunaliella tertiolecta to produce five different enzymes that could be used to convert biomass to fuel. Their finding suggests that algal biofuels could also be produced in the ocean, in the brackish water of tidelands, or even on otherwise unusable agricultural land with high salt content in the soil. [url]
If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post