When it comes to matching the properties of gasoline, isobutanol packs more bang for its buck than ethanol. To create the biofuel, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan are taking a fungus and strain of bacteria and adding them to a mass of inedible plant material. By fabricating a tiny ecosystem from organic matter and microbes, the scientists can reproduce 82 percent of gasoline’s heat energy. Since the microbes work on waste stalks and leaves of corn, the process in not expected to drive up food costs.
According to materials published by the University of Michigan, scientists in the past have focused on utilizing a single “superbug” to generate and process biofuel. Professor Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin is instead focusing on a team of microbial specialists to produce the alcohol. The fungus Trichoderma reesei efficiently breaks down plants into sugars, and Escherichia coli is genetically modified to convert those sugars into isobutanol. The researchers can produce 1.88 grams of isobutanol per liter of fluid, the highest concentration recorded to date for transforming plant material into biofuel.
“We’re really excited about this technology,” says Jeremy Minty, first author of the paper to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The U.S. has the potential to sustainably produce 1 billion tons or more of biomass annually, enough to produce biofuels that could displace 30 percent or more of our current petroleum production.”
Lin and her colleagues see their technique as able to produce a rival to ethanol and become a viable replacement for gasoline. The microbial methods could also be used to make plastics and break down forestry waste. Since all of the microbes are added into “one pot,” the capital investment costs for equipment and infrastructure will remain low. Most importantly, by continuing to adjust the balance of the microbes, the researchers can produce a renewable source of fuel in a sustainable manner.
Images via the University of Michigan