Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Microbial Ethanol and Biofuel Production

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This entry is submitted by Gloria Gamat, via Creative Reporter.Microscopic bugs usually viewed as destructive pests can also be productive. Scientists and several companies are now working with these creatures to convert wood, corn stalks and other plant waste into sugars that are easily brewed into ethanol that can be used to power automobiles.

Sounds like to hard to believe, fortunately there are biotechnology breakthroughs. According to supporters of alternative energy sources, energy companies may now be able to produce ethanol easily and inexpensively after decades of unfulfilled promise and billions in government corn subsidies.

"The process is like making grain alcohol, or brewing beer, but on a much bigger scale," said Nathanael Greene, an analyst with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "The technologies are out there to do this, but we need to convince the public this is real and not just a science project."

Using microbes may even solve a growing dilemma over the current ethanol manufacturing process, which relies almost exclusively on corn kernels and yielded only 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year (compared to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline used in the U.S.). There's growing concern throughout the Midwestern corn belt that the 95 U.S. ethanol plants are increasingly poaching corn meant for the dinner table or livestock feed.

Breaking cellulose into sugar to spin straw into ethanol has been studied for at least 50 years. But the technological hurdles and costs have been so daunting that most ethanol producers have relied on heavy government subsidies to squeeze fuel from corn.

At present, researchers are exploring various ways to exploit microbes to produce biofuels: one company uses the microbe itself to make ethanol; others are taking the genes that make the waste-to-fuel enzymes and splicing them into common bacteria. A new breed of "synthetic biologists" is also trying to produce the necessary enzymes by creating entirely new life forms through DNA.

Source: Wired News


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