The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has just announced a breakthrough discovery in the world of biofuels. Led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the 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 like gasoline. The new discovery will not only provide a feasible and important alternative to oil, but have potential to create a considerable amount of new jobs in rural parts of the country.
Non-edible woody plant matter is the focus material for the biofuel endeavor, and scientists have been on the hunt for a cost effective way to break down the cellulose to obtain the soft innards which could be used for fuel. Scientists have now pinpointed a microbe, the Clostridium celluloyticum, able to process the cellulose. The same microbes have also been proven effective in cleaning up polluted sites, powering fuel cells, and even transforming wastewater into bioplastic. The new super microbe is also able to break down plant matter and produce isobutanol in one relatively inexpensive step, as compared to conventional biofuel production which requires a multi-stage process using various microbes that complete different functions.
In his announcement Chu also pointed out that biofuel production has the potential to create new jobs in rural parts of the country by putting more farmland into production. But it is worth noting that the DOE’s new isobutanol process does not necessarily rely on new agricultural – apart from cultivated biofuel crops, the mircrobes can also process woody waste from other crops including wheat and rice straw, corn stover, and lumber waste. It is the handling, transporting and refining of the wate that could potentially generate new jobs.