Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Termite Guts Save The Earth!

Former Stanford University researcher Steven Chu says we could save the earth, if only we could understand how termite guts work. Termites turn cellulose, the stuff of which wood, grass, and most biomass is made, into ethanol, quite efficiently:
The US already subsidises farmers to grow corn to turn into ethanol, but $7bn in the past decade has been wasted because the process isn't carbon-neutral. "From the point of view of the environment," explains Chu, "it would be better if we just burnt oil."

"But carbon-neutral energy sources are achievable. A world population of 9 billion, the predicted peak in population, could be fed with less than one third of the planet's cultivable land area. Some of the rest could be dedicated to growing crops for energy. But the majority of all plant matter is cellulose – a solid, low-grade fuel about as futuristic as burning wood. If scientists can convert cellulose into liquid fuels like ethanol, the world's energy supply and storage problems could both be solved at a stroke."

This is where the termite guts come in. A billion years of evolution have produced a highly efficient factory for turning cellulose into ethanol, unlike anything which humans can yet design. By exploiting these tricks, says Chu, we can use biology as a solution to a pressing world problem.

Update: As a follow-on, I note that Green Car Congress has a piece up about this as well, and mentions efforts to push renewables by certain farm state politicians as well as representatives from Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Sweden and Thailand.

Update 2: I should have also pointed out the links in the above story to a pair of very interesting and detailed research papers by Tad W. Patzek (and others) analyzing the net energy available from biomass and corn, both of which Patzek calculates to be energy negative once all inputs are considered -- and he is quite exhaustive. Journey To Forever has differing viewpoints on this subject.

Further, GCC runs another article on biomass-to-ethanol, this time a breakthrough in cost reduction of the enzymes needed to process cellulose and turn it into ethanol. Claiming a 30-fold reduction in price in four years, the new process is still far from commercially viable, as other substantial obstacles remain:

Successful commercialization of the biomass-based process for production of fuel ethanol and other useful products will still depend on further refinements of the enzyme technology, establishment of a formal collection system for biomass, further progress in overcoming the technical barriers in biomass pre-treatment, optimization of current yeast organisms, and financial incentives for industry to invest in facilities utilizing biomass instead of corn starch as feedstock.