Pharos-Tribune

Columns

March 7, 2014

PETERS: Termites and better biofuels

Every time I fill my gas tank, I see the notice on the pump that explains part of the fuel I’m buying is ethanol. Ethanol is alcohol, a type of biofuel rather than fossil fuel. While biofuels can be good to promote national energy independence and possibly help with greenhouse gas emissions, the ethanol in our gasoline is made from corn. (The starch in the corn is broken down into sugars that are then fermented into alcohol.) With corn ethanol, we are essentially putting food into our gas tanks, a fact that some people take exception to because it drives up food prices and deprives people of basic foodstuffs.

A different way of producing biofuels is to use crop residues and woody materials as the source for the fuel. Those materials are full of cellulose and a molecule called lignin. The lignin is bonded to the cellulose within each plant cell. Researchers are working to find a cheap and straight-forward way to neutralize the lignin and break down the cellulose into simple sugars. The sugars can then be fermented into fuel.

We can break down lignin at high temperature and pressure, and with harsh chemicals. But can we find a way to remove it that doesn’t require high costs and harm to the environment?

Researchers are looking at two organisms that can do the needed chemical tricks at room temperature and pressure and without harsh chemicals. Certain types of fungi can do this. It’s impressive what the right fungus can do, but fungal action is slow — very slow. So a number of scientists are looking at termites. As we all know, termites can eat solid wood and make a living doing so. Their digestive systems break down tough plant material at room temperature and pressure in as little as 24 hours.

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