Puny Paper Pigs Poop Potential Petroleum Proxy

By Jason Davis | August 30, 2011
Forget the iPad, print isn't dead yet! Researchers at Tulane University have discovered a new bacterial strain that turns cellulose from discarded newspapers into butanol, a potential fuel source. That's right, now we can continue grazing the rain forests and farm fields to run our SUV's on old newspapers—all in the name of renewable and sustainable energy! Cellulose is a material found in all green plants, and this new bacterial strain is the first microbe to produce butanol directly from cellulose. According to The Detroit News, molecular biology professor David Mullin discovered the microbe in animal dung at the New Orleans zoo.
This isn't the first butanol-producing microbe discovered, but unlike those others, the researchers' new strain, dubbed TU-103 in honor of the university, can withstand exposure to oxygen, making it easier to manage. "In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year," said Harshad Velankar, a postdoctoral fellow working with Mullin's group. "Turning it into butanol is the 'dream of many,'" Velankar said in a statement. Biofuels were a hot topic not too long ago, but interest has cooled as battery and hybrid technology have advanced. However, there are still advantages that have little or nothing to do with the environment, like not having to rely on offshore drilling, or depend on thuggish Middle Eastern oil barons. Unlike ethanol, another cellulosic biofuel, butonol is a promising biofuel because it requires no engine modification. It also mixes easily with gasoline, and its higher energy density means that it's more like regular unleaded gasoline than ethanol. On the other hand, there's no infrastructure for butanol, and detractors also decry its toxicity and complex production process. The Tulane researchers currently don't know if there's a commercially viable application for their newspaper-hungry bugs to make butanol, but note that TU-103 is patent pending. Automotive.com's take: While we're not holding our breath for the new fuel, we generally applaud technology which enables our continued use of the combustion engine. If we get a cleaner burning engine while reducing our dependence on foreign oil, then we're for it. Plus, it'd be really cool to say that our cars are powered by words. And poop. Source: The Detroit News