Biofuels at last?

I think one of the milestones of the 21st century will be the point where fossil fuels become obsolete. Tomes big enough to sink an Exxon-Valdez oil tanker (and cause a spill) have already been written about the multiple ways in which humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is a burden, so I won’t waste any ink on it here. Suffice to say, I think we can all agree that they need to go.

Biofuels such as ethanol have been an incredibly attractive alternative for years now, in part because they wouldn’t require too many changes to our current infrastructure. The only problem is: No one can quite figure out how to make them economical. All that might be about to change, thanks to researchers at Caltech and DNA2.0.


Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and world-leading gene-synthesis company DNA2.0 have taken an important step toward the development of a cost-efficient process to extract sugars from cellulose–the world’s most abundant organic material and cheapest form of solar-energy storage. Plant sugars are easily converted into a variety of renewable fuels such as ethanol or butanol.”

Cellulose is a massive and rigid carbohydrate that maintains the structure of plant cells. About one third of all plant matter on earth is cellulose. The problem is, cellulose is very hard to ferment into ethanol,  one of the most promising of the prospective biofuels.

Take corn as an example. About half of the maize plant is composed primarily of cellulose (these parts are called ‘corn stover’). While we could take all the cellulose-rich parts of corn and degrade them into a usable form with current technology, the process is slow and cost prohibitive. Thus, corn stover is usually discarded or used as livestock feed.

Not only that, but the parts of corn that have less cellulose and could be easily fermented are the same parts that humans and livestock eat, so they are more expensive than corn stover. The great hope of ethanol biofuel has been that someone would invent a efficient and cheap process that can convert corn stover into ethanol.

With the discovery of more stable and more powerful enzymes that can degrade cellulose into fermentable forms, the entire venture becomes much more economically feasible. Agricultural waste products are already being produced every time we grow food. Right now, when corn is grown the stover (the stalk and leaves of the plant) is either fed to livestock or thrown away. If we can use corn stover to produce fuel instead, the efficiency of our agriculture will be increased exponentially, and we will have a workable biofuel.

Efficiency is key. If humanity is going to become environmentally sustainable, it won’t be due to us harshly limiting our growth or even regressing into the past, but by using technology to work around problems and benefit ourselves in the process.


~ by ethmgallagher on March 24, 2009.

One Response to “Biofuels at last?”

  1. […] The Counter-Feminist placed an interesting blog post on Biofuels at last?Here’s a brief overviewNot only that, but since humans can’t eat cellulose, the parts of the corn plant that don’t have much are the same parts we eat. […]

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