Wednesday, October 03, 2007

one molecule and we can replace oil consumption?

Powering our cars with lawn cuttings, wood chips, and prairie grasses instead of Middle East oil sounds like a fine idea. The problem is cellulose. Found in plant cell walls, it's the most abundant naturally occurring organic molecule on the planet. It would be a potentially limitless source of energy if humans can find a way to break the tough cellulose molecule down. Bacteria and other microorganisms use specialized enzymes to break cellulose down on the forest floor, lawns, fields, etc. In effect, the bacteria eat it. Cows, goats, and deer maintain a special stomach or stomachs to digest the molecule; termites have scores of unique microorganisms in their guts that help them process it too. For scientists, though, figuring out how to convert cellulose into a usable form on a budget has not been easy. Corn ethanol is easier to produce than the cellulosic kind (convert the sugar to alcohol and voila), but it only yields 30% more energy than is required to grow and process it — not really worth the trouble. Cellulosic ethanol found in easy growing species like switchgrass could potentially give 80% more energy than is required to grow and convert it. We could grow one billion tons of it a year and it is in our landfills also as leaf and sawdust waste. So even oil corporations like BP are putting scientists on the job in a race to pursue new research on cellulosic biofuels. More info on leading scientists doing this work at Wired.
Photo via Mongabay

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