Funky Fuel and Other Stories

Alligator fat and other unusual sources of biofuel, along with other updates

Panda poop. Alligator fat. Old newspapers.

They may produce a chuckle or two, but they may also help to produce biofuels in the future.

Researchers at Mississippi State University report that bacteria found in the feces of Giant Pandas are particularly promising for breaking down lignocellulose in switchgrass, corn stover, and wood chips. This only goes to reason, given that the pandas’ diet is about 99 percent bamboo. “Our studies suggest that bacteria species in the panda intestine may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than termite bacteria and may do so in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes,” said study co-author Ashli Brown.  Based on their studies of a pair of pandas at the Memphis Zoo, Brown estimated that under certain conditions panda gut bacteria can convert about 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars. She is currently working to isolate the most powerful of digestive enzymes for biofuel production.

Meanwhile, scientists at Tulane University in Louisiana reported discovering a novel bacterial strain that uses the cellulose in paper, including old newspapers, to produce butanol, an alcohol fuel that’s considered superior to ethanol in many ways, including higher energy content. Dubbed TU-103, they say it is the first bacterial stain from nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose and that it is the only known clostridial strain that can grow and produce butanol in the presence of oxygen. 

Then there is the discovery that alligator fat, rendered through microwaving, can produce biodiesel that meets nearly all official standards for high quality biodiesel. At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, researchers found that alligator fat is a feedstock worth investigating for biodiesel production due to its high lipid content. Alligators, primarily from Florida and Louisiana, are captured in the wild and harvested from alligator farms for their meat and skin, leaving an estimated 15 million pounds of fat annually that now goes to landfills. 

Test Help
A new test center devoted to helping move cellulosic biofuels closer to commercialization has been opened in Emeryville, Calif., by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

New test equipment can convert biomass for engine testing

The Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit provides industry-scale test beds for discoveries made in the laboratory.  It features pre-treatment capabilities and bioreactors for the production of microbial or fungal enzymes, and will have the capability for fermentation and the capacity to purify the fuels.  It was funded with a $20 million grant from the Department of Energy.

Biofuels at 30,000 feet

A November flight from Houston to Chicago on a United Airlines plane powered by 40 percent biofuel made from algae brought biofuels to the skies in the U.S.  A few days later, Alaska Airlines followed with a flight using 20 percent biofuel blend. Its source: cooking oil.

The U.S. flights follow similar firsts using biofuel blends for commercial aviation fuel in France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain. Air China is testing biofuels as well.  The fuels come from sources as varied as wood chips and cooking oil to energy grasses and algae and range from 20 percent to 50 percent biofuel.

Renewable jet fuel is showing it can fly and reduce carbon emissions compared with traditional fuel. Now, it becomes a question of producing it economically.

Wisconsin Poll 2011

A 2011 poll in Wisconsin, the nation’s ninth largest ethanol producing state, found that a majority of consumers support the use of ethanol blends if it keeps dollars and jobs in the U.S. and reduces air pollution, but not everyone was sure it did either.

Respondents’ view of the environmental impacts of ethanol was mixed. While ethanol emits less greenhouse gases than gasoline, only 53 percent believed this to be the case, while 41 percent thought the two were about the same, and 6 percent believed ethanol was more polluting than gasoline.  Similarly, when asked about ethanol’s impact on the environment, 41 percent believed that it causes less damage than gasoline, 15 percent thought ethanol was more damaging, and 44 percent believe the two were about the same. 

The survey by the University of Wisconsin-Madison also found considerable doubt about ethanol’s economic benefits. Only 43 percent believed domestically produced ethanol increases U.S. jobs, while 46 percent thought it would have no effect and 10 percent believed ethanol use would decrease jobs.

Overall, support for ethanol was highest among people who were younger, more educated,  and identified themselves as Democrats. Support was also highest among those living in a county where an active biofuels plant was located.



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