Things are moving along at a nice clip in the world of biofuel research, so it seems like news of another "breakthrough" is barely enough to provoke a yawn. Well, this latest piece of news sure stands out from the crowd. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has just announced that a research team headed up by the Department's BioEnergy Science Center has developed a cost effective method for converting woody plants straight into isobutanol, which can be used in conventional car engines just as gasoline.
Biofuel and Green Jobs, Too
In his announcement, Chu was quick to point out that biofuel production has the potential to create new jobs in rural parts of the country. Though some of those jobs might come from putting more farmland into production, the most important thing about DOE's new isobutanol process is that it does not necessarily rely on new agricultural production. Aside from cultivated biofuel crops, it can use the woody waste from other crops including wheat and rice straw, corn stover, and lumber waste. Handling, transporting and refining these wastes is probably where a good deal of the new employment would occur.
Biofuel, from Farm to Gas Tank
Scientists from the BioEnergy Science Center (an offshoot of DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory) worked with researchers from the University of California to develop a new strain of the microbe Clostridium celluloyticum. As its name implies, C. celluloyticum is a natural at breaking down cellulose. The problem is that different species can only produce certain aspects of the process, so the new strain combines those various talents in one microbe. The result is a process that breaks down plant matter and produces isobutanol in one relatively inexpensive step, in contrast to the multi-stage process demanded of conventional biofuel production.
Green Jobs for Microbes
Non-edible woody plant matter is a potential biofuel gold mine, but until now the problem has been to find low cost, energy efficient ways of breaking down the cellulose – the "wood" part of the plant cells – to get at the soft innards that can be converted to fuel. Microbes have proved up to the job, and that's just one example of their role in new green tech. They're also being put to work cleaning up polluted sites, powering fuel cells, and even transforming wastewater into bioplastic.