Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Ethanol Machine

The hunt for efficient, responsible fuel has yet to dent the demand for oil, but thanks to an army of microbes the days of hydrocarbons are growing short. Ethanol has yet to be considered as a real alternative, mostly due to the use of natural gas in its production, and the low efficiency of current systems. To date, the main fuel for the ethanol industry is corn, which has very low energy content, and is required for other facilities of society. Using corn would continue our cycle of self demise, as well as drive up costs of agriculture by raising the demand for corn.

So ethanol is useless? Negative! Ethanol from corn is inept, but ethanol is starting to be produced from other sources. Companies like Novozymes are cranking out breakthrough enzymes that can breakdown cellulose into ethanol, and they are finding these enzymes in microbes and fungi. The best thing about this new ability to break down cellulose is that it comes from so many sources, basically any plant matter. Apart from that, some companies have reported production efficiency equal to or better than natural gas production, around %80.

Cellulases are being discovered in a variety of forms. The fungus Trichoderma reesei, was found by investigating rapidly rotting tents in the South Pacific during WWII. Today it has some very adept cellulose bustin’ moves that make it an ideal ethanol middleman. Other powerful enzymes are being discovered in the guts of termites, where wild bacteria help the bugs digest wood.

Ethanol produced in Brazil from sugarcane has been rated as producing 56% less emissions as gasoline, and boasts an 8:1 output to input energy ratio. Brazil produces almost 4 billion gallons a year, providing 40% of their fuel for cars and light trucks. So why can’t we stack up, green-washed as our society likes to think it is? Most importantly, we’re investing in corn ethanol production, a throwback to the stone age. The capacity to produce ethanol from sources with better, cleaner yields is there, it just needs to be thrust upon North American manufacturers before its too late to shift production.



Wired Magazine, Oct. 2007 , pg.159-167

National Geographic, Oct. 2007, pg47-48

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