There’s growing interest in biofuels in aviation, with both Air Canada and Boeing utilizing a biofuel made from used cooking oil—combined with conventional jet fuel—to power some of the first less-polluting flights. But researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have come up with a alternative made from a common black fungus found in rotting leaves and fruit—and they hope that it will lead them to an economically viable aviation biofuel within the next five years.

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Scientists have been interested in the potential of using fungi to produce biofuels for quite some time—they are both a key producer of enzymes necessary for converting biomass to sugars, and can produce hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons are the chief component of petroleum, and by using a particular fungus—Aspergillus carbonarius ITEM 5010—a team from the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at WSU were able to create hydrocarbons that more closely resemble the hydrocarbons found in standard jet fuel than other biofuel sources, such as ethanol.

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The team, lead by Professor Birgitte Ahring, fed the fungi a combination of oatmeal, wheat straw and the non-edible leftovers of corn production to stimulate the production of hydrocarbons. Ahring believes that the resulting increased hydrocarbon production occurs “as a protective mechanism” against invading bacteria. Now the team will work to increase this hydrocarbon production and improve biochemical pathways through genetic mutation. And, if all goes well, we should see an affordable aviation biofuel in the next five years. As Ahring explained in a statement “It’s very promising… I think that the fungus-based fuels are something that is going to happen. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

+ Washington State University