The 41 Weirdest Things Ever Used to Make Biofuels

If you're only an occasional reader in the world of biofuels, corn, sugarcane and veggie oils are the raw materials you’ll have heard the most about — lately, perhaps more about cellulosic feedstocks from agricultural and municipal wastes.

By most counts, the number of feedstocks is well over 100 in total. The fastest-growing source? That would be waste residues from agricultural, industrial, municipal, forest and animal sources.

But nature offers a tremendous array of life — life that survives by making energy for life and growth out of the materials around. Accordingly, the story of biofuels and its sources would not be complete without a look at some of the oddest materials and organisms used to make biofuels — either as raw materials or in processing them.

9 Unforgettable Classics

1. Human liposuction fat

It could only happen in LA, we suppose. In California a couple of years ago, the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who used liposuctioned human fat to power two SUVs with biodiesel, faced an investigation from the California state public health authorities, for potential violation of a state law that prohibits the use of human medical waste for vehicle fuels. The “lipodiesel” controversy erupted when Dr Craig Bittner was sued by three patients for removing excessive fat and causing disfiguration.  According to reports, Bittner, who closed his practice in November 2008, left the country for South America.

2. Bunnies

Sweden’s got a common problem: too many bunnies, breeding like, well, rabbits. Sweden’s got an unusual solution, trap ‘em, kill ‘em, and burn ‘em to generate power. A perfect ecologically pure power source for plug-in electrics…oh, not really. Eew.  We profiled the common problem and the icky solution in this story from last October. Apparently, Stockholm, which has an overstock of stray, wild rabbits that are destroying local parks, authorized a culling operation, and the killed bunnies were shipped for processing. The Stockholm facility is also incinerating dead cats, cows, deer and horses, according to the report. Yikes.

3. Europe’s Wine Lakes

A few years back, Nature reported that “The European Commission is putting out to tender the opportunity to turn its excess wine into bioethanol,” while swearing it would be the last time that the EU would be in the business of subsidizing the conversion of excess wine production in order to protect wine prices. At the time, other media were reporting that in 2006, just the Bordeaux region converted roughly 17 million liters (almost 2 million cases) of wine into fuel ethanol.

4. The New Orleans Times-Picayune

It was a sad day for its readership, and for national discourse, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that it would be mooing to an all-digital format; but it turns out, it might be bad for biofuels, too. In Louisiana last summer, Tulane University researchers discovered a new bacterial strain that turns newspapers into butanol.  The researchers are currently using old editions from “The Times-Picayune” as a feedstock for their bacterial strain named “TU-103″ to produce the ethanol. Harshad Velenkar, a post doctoral researcher states, “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.”  A patent is pending for the researchers process.

5. Prince Charles’ leftover wine

The Prince of Wales has had a rough time with his image in the press over the years, but it was a well-meaning effort that was too high on the “let them eat cake” factor put him in hot water this time. It was reported the Prince of Wales is reported to be fueling his Aston Martin D86 with ethanol made from wine. The prince’s collection of Jaguars, and his Audi and Range Rover run on waste oil biodiesel, part of a $1 million investment by the Prince in converting his fuel and heating systems to eco-friendly sources. The Prince’s staff said that he had reduced his carbon emissions by 18 percent against a targeted 25 percent reduction by 2012. The wine used to make the Prince’s ethanol is waste wine that is unsuitable for consumption.

6. Psychedelic corn

In Pennsylvania 3 summers ago, researchers have identified new corn genes that increase the export of carbohydrates from corn leaves and could result in higher yields for biofuels. The two genes that were isolated are controlling the movement of carbon from leaves to other parts of the plant, and thereby control carbohydrate creation. The researchers, working under a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, believe that manipulation of the metabolic pathway will give options for increased food or fuel from the plant.

Because the mutant genes cause the plant’s leaves to become streaked with yellow and green streaks, the write-up in Genetics referred to the “psychedelic” nature of the corn produced from the altered DNA.

7. Martian CO2 and space-based residues

Though dollars for commercializing biofuels are as scarce as water on Mars, two projects have found R&D funding to look at opportunities for growing biofuels in space. Last August, we covered a group at NASA’s Ames Research Center who are working to convert space-based plant residues, from plants grown by astronauts to provide food and breathing air for long-period space travel, into sources of fuel, chemicals and food.

In March 2010, jatropha seeds went into orbit on the space shuttle, where a research project looked at growth rates. Perhaps somewhere in outer space, NASA can find a banker ready to lend money for a commercial-stage progress.

8. Human solid waste

In Ghana, Waste Enterprisers Limited is producing biodiesel from human waste at pilot projects in Teshie-Nungua in Accra and Dompoase in Kumasi. The projects should be at full pilot scale by the end of the summer and at commercial scale in two years with the capacity to process 100 truck loads of waste per day. The project has received SEED Initiative Award founded by the United Nations Environmental Program and financial support from the Gates Foundation.

From the UK, we reported on the country’s first ever bus powered on food waste and human poo, which engineers believe could provide a sustainable way of fuelling public transport – cutting emissions in polluted towns and cities. The 40-seater Bio-Bus, which runs on gas generated through the treatment of sewage and food waste that’s unfit for human consumption, helps to improve urban air quality as it produces fewer emissions than traditional diesel engines. Running on waste products that are both renewable and sustainable, the bus can travel up to 300km on a full tank of gas generated at Bristol sewage treatment works – a plant run by GENeco, a subsidiary of Wessex Water. This week GENeco became the first company in the UK to start injecting gas generated from food waste and sewage into the national gas grid network and at the same time installed a gas refuelling plant for the bus.

9. Day-old whale

Editor’s Note: There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the topic of Peak Oil; less on the problems of Peak Whale back in the 1850s that prompted the world to shift from whale oil to kerosene for lighting. But whale oil made a temporary comeback in this bizarre story of a UK town that was stuck with a beached, dead whale, and figured out something positive to do with it. 

In the UK a few years back, a 10 meter-long fin whale weighing six tons and 780 kg was stranded and subsequently died on the beach near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The whale’s remains will be rendered down to produce approximately 2,000 liters of biodiesel. The decision to process the carcass into biofuel was made by the Suffolk Coastal District Council. Alternatives included dumping the carcass in a landfill or towing it out to sea to decompose. The remains of the whale not used to produce biodiesel will be incinerated at a power station that uses animal remains as fuel to produce electricity.

Up next: The extremophiles

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Thirteen Extremophiles

Some of the first American visitors to Yellowstone, who began to record their journeys into the wilds of northwestern Wyoming during the early 1870s, noted the horrible taste of the water from the hot springs. A visitor with the Hayden party compared the taste of the water at Soda Butte to a “a diabolic julep of lucifer matches, bad eggs, vinegar and magnesia.”

Halt there, right at the vinegar comment — that’s acetic acid, of course. Which led researchers to consider that, amongst the volcanic stews of Yellowstone, there might be some crazy organism that can tolerate insane temperatures, and still find a way to break down and ferment cellulose into the organic acid known as acetic acid and, possibly, its cousin among the two-carbon alcohols, ethanol. Or even more complex fuels.

These are the extremophiles — organisms that survive incredibly hot temps and have amazing properties.

1. Pyrococcus furiosus — the raging fireball

Imagine a world where instead of creating CO2 as an emission from burning fuels, you could make fuels from the emissions, the CO2. And could do so in a way that bypasses the production of biomass and the extraction of fermentable sugars — thereby getting around the energy-intensity of making biomass and then destroying it. This week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from both universities led by Michael Adams has revealed that they have engineered Pyrococcus furiosus to make 3-hydroxypropionic acid using hydrogen gas, and CO2.

It’s a relatively well-known microorganism found in the vicinity of underwater geothermal vents or volcanoes. It’s one of the archaea — a group of one-celled critters long thought to be a subset of bacteria, but which in recent years have been shunted off to a domain in the taxonomy of life all their own. This little archaeon is one for the books — whose name translates from a mash-up of Medieval Latin and Classical Greek as “raging fireball” — known for having a preferred temperature of 100 degrees celsius.

2. Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis

Turns out that researchers at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center, located Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis, a naturally occurring bacterium, onsite at Yellowstone, Sure enough, it thrives at extremely high temperatures, breaks down organic material such as sticks and leaves in its natural environment, and scientists hope to transfer this capability to biofuel production tanks. Now for the bad news. In its natural state, it makes a lot more acetic acid than ethanol.

3. Thermosynechococcus elongatus

University of Texas researchers Alan Lambowitz and Georg Mohr have been working oThermosynechococcus elongatus, a cyanobacterium discovered in Japan that can survive at temperatures of up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Opisthocomus hoazin

It’s a leaf-eating Amazonian pheasant-like stinkbird, or hoatzin. A prehistoric relic, its unique fermentative organ harbors an impressive array of novel microbes, like that of cows and other ruminants. Instead of a rumen, stinkbirds possess a crop, an enlargement of the esophagus where the fermentation takes place—and the source of the stink. The characterization of its contents will likely lead to the identification of novel microbial enzymes that degrade plant cell walls.

5. Gribbles

There’s a special organism out there that has attracted understandable attention — because it has what we call a sterile gut. Now, every human baby is born with one — but we lose it in the first days of life as the bacteria move in. That’s the typical path for almost all organisms. But not the gribble. It’s a microscopic worm that causes wood rot, at sea, for piers, jetties and rowboats. A pest that knows how to munch fabulous amounts of wood as a food source, and down-convert them to the sugars used to power life. Sugars that can be fermented into alcohols, or hydrocarbon fuels suitable for internal combustion engines.

6. Ceriporiopsis subvermispora

DOE writes: “White rot fungi possess the unique ability to efficiently depolymerize lignin in order to gain access to cell wall carbohydrates for carbon and energy sources. Ceriporiopsis subvermispora rapidly depolymerizes lignin with relatively little cellulose degradation. P. chrysosporium and Pleurotus ostreatus have complex oxidative mechanisms involved in lignocellulose conversions.”

7. Desulfurococcus fermentans

According to the Joint Genome Institute, “Desulfurococcus fermentans, isolated from the Uzon Caldera on the Kamchatka Peninsula, is the only known archaeon that breaks down cellulose and, unlike most known microorganisms that carry out fermentation, it produces hydrogen (via proton reduction) while fermenting cellulose and starch without experiencing an inhibition of growth.”

8. Botryococcus braunii

According to the DOE, “Botryococcus braunii is a colony-forming green microalga, less than 10 micrometers in size, that synthesizes long-chain liquid hydrocarbon compounds and sequesters them in the extracellular matrix of the colony to afford buoyancy. A type of B. braunii produces a family of compounds termed botryococcenes, which hold promise as an alternative energy source. Botryococcenes have already been converted to fuel suitable for internal combustion engines.”

9. Caldicellulosiruptor bescii

It’s a species of thermophilic, anaerobic bacteria, originally isolated from a geothermally heated freshwater pool in the Valley of Geysers on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia in 1990. If you’ If you thought “that’s Anaerocellum thermophilum” – you get a gold star, but the bacterium was reclassified three years ago by a team that included the afore-mentioned Mike Adams.

Last summer, a group of researchers led by the University of Georgia’s Mike Adams found that the bacterium that can, without pretreatment, break down biomass, including lignin, and release sugars for biofuels and chemicals production. The group writes in Energy & Environmental Science, “the majority (85%) of insoluble switchgrass biomass that had not been previously chemically treated was degraded at 78 °C by the anaerobic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii. Remarkably, the glucose/xylose/lignin ratio and physical and spectroscopic properties of the remaining insoluble switchgrass were not significantly different than those of the untreated plant material. C. bescii is therefore able to solubilize lignin as well as the carbohydrates and, accordingly, lignin-derived aromatics were detected in the culture supernatants.”

10. Ralstonia eutropha

A combination of water, renewable electricity, CO2 and an engineered strain of a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha are the ingredients for diesel fuel, in a technology path being pursued by a team from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the University of California and Logos Technologies.

Highlighted in the in-house Berkeley Lab online publication this past week, the $3.4M electrofuels program reroutes metabolic pathways in the bacteria, bypassing photosynthesis, to create medium-chain methyl ketones, with cetane numbers similar to those of typical diesel fuel. The team is using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and the bacteria use energy from hydrogen to split carbon from CO2, and produce hydrocarbons that float to the waters surface.

11. Thielavia terrestris and Myceliophthora thermophila

A team of researchers from the DOE, Novozymes and Concordia University have been unlocking the genome of Thielavia terrestris andMyceliophthora thermophila, fungi that thrive in high-temperature environments above 45°C and whose enzymes remain active at temperatures ranging from 104°F to 160°F (40 °C to 75 °C),

12. Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum

A team out of Lee Lynd’s lab at Dartmouth has been at work on Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum, a thermophilic anaerobic bacterium that ferments xylan and biomass-derived sugars, to produce ethanol at high yield.

13. From amongst the Archaea

Biologists at Berkeley and the University of Maryland discovered a microbe in a Nevada hot spring that has an enzyme that processes cellulose and remains active at a record 109 degrees Celsius (228 degrees Fahrenheit), significantly above the 100? (212?) boiling point of water. The microbe, a member of the Archaea – a kingdom of organisms distinct from bacteria and prokaryotes (the latter including algae, yeast, fungi, plants, and humans too), was discovered in a 95? (203?) geothermal pool, is only the second member of the ancient Archaea known to grow by digesting cellulose above 80?. And the microbe’s cellulase is the most heat tolerant enzyme found in any cellulose-digesting microbe.

Up next: Three pests

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Three Pests

1. Potato blight

Those whose family chronicles make reference to the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 and the subsequent starvation of more than 1 million and the emigration of at least another million — may take some comfort in the fact that a cousin of the infective microbial agent responsible for the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, has been discovered in the Rocky Mountain snowfields and may have some transformative impact on biofuels development down the line. A new strain of yellow-green algae, heterococcus sp. DN1, as examined in the pages of Biotechnology Progress, is found to grow at temperatures approaching freezing and to accumulate large intracellular stores of lipids. T Among the various extremophiles being sought by industry, there’s none so eagerly sought as much as a strain of algae that thrives in cold weather. Accordingly, finding a good candidate strain in a snowfield — well, it’s quite an achievement.

2. Kudzu

Down in Florida, kudzu is a pretty unpopular topic, as the “weed that Ate the South” is pretty much anywhere in the Southeastern quadrant, but some Oak Ridge researchers think they may be able to convert all that misery into fuels. Back in 2010, the Global Venture Challenge at Oak Ridge National Laboratory gave a project to convert waste materials into renewable jet fuel, from COSI Catalysts, honorable mention last week in the “Advanced Materials for Sustainable Energy” category. The technology, spun out from the University of South Florida, is based on a patent-pending catalytic process that transforms  horse manure, demolition debris or kudzu vines into fuel, and the company founders said that they are seeking up to $2 million for a 10,000 gallon per year pilot plant. And, Inventure’s chemical engineers, based at the University of Alabama’s business incubator are exploring the use of kudzu as a feedstock for ethanol production. The vines, which are spreading across the South, can be turned into a sugary syrupy-like substance that will then be distilled into ethanol. The syrup can also be produced from algae, wood chips and other organic waste.

3. Fire Ant Jet Fuel?

Recently, we read that fire ants contain up to 16% oil content, by weight, and the fatty acid profile is in line with a lot of oil sources — for example, soybeans check in at around 18 percent oil content. Researchers report:

Black (Solenopsis richteri) and red (Solenopsis invicta, Buren) imported fire ants…now represent a considerable nuisance to humans in both rural and urban settings.” The researchers report more of a focus on controlling fire ants than utilizing them for practical applications, but said that “one study of the lipid composition…determined that 65-75 percent was composed of hydrocarbons. In these studies, only the cuticular lipids were extracted by dipping the insects briefly into hexane. The heat of combustion was reported at 133,000 BTU/gallons — which is a 10 percent lift from biodiesel and roughly comparable to kerosene (jet fuel).

Up next: Fungi

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3 Vibrating Blobs and Fungi

One commenter recently said that the world of algae is so genetically diverse that humans have more in common with fungus than some algae have in common with each other. Turns out there’s plenty for people to learn from our distant cousins when it comes to breaking down cellulose.

1. Rumen fungus

In Oklahoma, researchers at Oklahoma State University have published the first analysis of a genome of rumen fungus, organisms that reside in the gut of ruminant animals and are remarkably efficient at digesting plant biomass. The team’s genomic and experimental analyses indicate the fungus efficiently degrades a wide range of non-crop plant materials, such as switchgrass, corn stover, sorghum and energy cane. The extent of plant biomass degradation has rarely been observed in other microorganisms.

2. Turkey tail fungus

In Germany, the turkey tail fungus Trametes versicolor is subject of research being performed at the University of Freiburg in an attempt to source a catalyst for the conversion process. The fungus releases an enzyme called laccasse, allowing electrochemical conversion of oxygen within the biofuel power cell. The findings were recently published in ChemSusChem.

3. The vibrating blob

A few orders up the chain of evolution from the fungi — but not all that many, consider tunicates, the vibrating blob. No, it’s not a garment you wear to a fraternity toga party. No, not what you use in case of a snake bite. It’s a small, tubular, jellyesque, prolifically reproducing marine family that lives just about wherever marine bacteria and algae are found.

Some of them look more like purple and orange vibrating blobs — the marine equivalent of a purposeless loafer living off the national bounty and the public dole. Ah, but they are the only animals that produce cellulose — and no lignin, either —– and they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which people and fish both need but do not synthesize. It makes them a potential alternative for biofuels production and as a feed ingredient for farmed fish. Dried tunicates contain 60 per cent protein. Perhaps just as importantly, salmon find them tasty.

Up next: Beer, soda, jam, candy and more!

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Wasted! 5 Groups Working on Beer, Soda, Jam, Candy, Fruit and Veggie Waste

1. Soda pop waste

In a story that seems to come right out of the marketing for Jolt Cola (“all the sugar, and twice the caffeine…and a handy transport fuel to boot…”), researchers at Oklahoma State University reported that waste from soda pop production can be used as feedstock for ethanol production simply by adding nitrogen and yeast. The presence of sodium benzoate, a common food preservative, was the major indicator in whether a particular brand of soda would ferment well or not. Soda waste is typically disposed of by adjusting the pH level and sending it to a local wastewater treatment plant, a method that can be costly because it can be done only in limited quantities.

2. Jams, jellies and candy

We reported last year that Energentium is getting ready to fire up its 4 million gallon per year waste beer and soda-to-ethanol facility in Brantford, Ontario. The facility will also produce electricity, animal feed, Omega-3 and CO2. The facility can also use other food wastes such as jams, sugars, candy, fruits and vegetables. The facility is co-located in an area with a lot of breweries and wineries to take advantage of off-spec product for feedstock.

3. Mixing brewery waste and manure

In Vermont, a project which uses cow manure and beer brewery wasteto create a high-sugar content waste stream has projected yields and energy balances comparable to other projects which have used direct sugar streams, according to the project’s USDA grant.

4. More sugar!

In North Carolina, Detroit-based Disposal and Recycling Technologies Inc. one related plans to bring its sugary conversion technology for waste alcohol into ethanol to a new facility in Charlotte. The process turns alcohol and sugar-based beverages such as old beer, wine, soda, juice and liquor into fuel grade ethanol.

5. More beer!

A few years back Blue Marble Biomaterials announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding to begin development of a bio-refinery pilot at a North American Anheuser-Busch facility. The project will convert spent grains and biogas from the brewing process into chemicals that can be used in other applications, such as food, cosmetics, and personal care products.

Up next: Hemp fuel

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Don’t Smoke My Fuel! 6 Ventures Working on Hemp

As one commenter observed: “Hemp? It’s the ultimate commercial strategy for biofuels. Give away the fuel, sell the smoke."

Bottom line, alas, hemp is a non-food crop that grows on infertile land and does not have psychoactive properties like its cousin the cannabis plant. It’s one of a family of plants that provide what are known as “bast fibers”. Bast is the barrier material between the bark and the inner woody material (the “xylem”) of plants like flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, and even stinging nettle. In the world of biofuels, the primary interest to date has been from the biodiesel community, which has an interest in hemp oil, but there’s been work done on the alcohol fuels side, too.

1. In Canada, Discovery Minerals Ltd agreed last April to form a Joint Venture (JV) partnership with biofuel technology company Syngar Technologies, Inc. (SGI) of Alberta. The Joint Venture will authorize use of Syngar’s synthesis technology for applications within the Industrial Hemp sector. The result is a sustainable approach toward the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp. The JV partnership will also have access to research funding and facilities through the Alberta research counsel. This access to resources will allow the JV to continually keep pace with the maturing industrial hemp industry within North America. Discovery’s immediate benefit is the ability to book the intellectual property’s value as an asset on its financial statements.

2. For many years, hemp was a primary material in Europe for making cloth — and tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans include scenes of young heroines spinning cloth out of stinging nettles. Though hemp fell into disfavor and outright bans because of its association with marijuana, it’s been making a comeback in the fiber world. In fact, Naturally Advanced Technologies entered into a development and supply agreement with Target in 2011 evaluate the use of its CRAiLAR Flax fiber in Target’s domestic textiles category. The proprietary CRAiLAR enzymatic process turns natural bast fibersinto soft, finished textiles and can be integrated with existing technology for spinning, weaving, or forming fabric.

So, there’s medical (or recreational) hemp and industrial hemp — not the same thing. There’s also a crop known as sunn hemp, a legume that has nothing to do with either.

3. Last July, Hemp, Inc. announced that it has signed a deal with KUSH to distribute a line of natural hemp-based skin care products featuring the unique properties of the hemp plant which provides powerful relief and scientific cellular rejuvenation. As consideration for licensing rights, Hemp Inc. (HEMP) will immediately transfer 10,000,000 shares of their stock, which is currently trading for about $0.058 per share, to KUSH, a private firm. “KUSH offers Hemp, Inc. the right vehicle to gain a dominant position in the sale of over-the-counter hemp-based skin care line market by joining forces with a new company featuring revolutionary products. In addition, we have tremendous faith in KUSH’s CEO, Steve Kubby, who played a key role in the passage of Prop. 215 and was the second person in history to launch a publicly traded cannabis company,” added Tobias.

4. In February, Extreme Biodiesel and subsidiary XTRM Cannabis Ventures received Pre-Approval for a $5 million line of credit from Coastal Mortgage Group for the purpose of purchasing real estate, the companies announced. XTRM plans to use the credit line for purchasing real estate for the purpose of Hemp Cultivation, Medical Marijuana Cultivation and Commercial Real Estate related to dispensaries so long as it’s use is deemed legal. Some of the terms of the line of credit are that any transactions and property use are deemed legal by state and federal authorities, clear title, and that the Company must contribute at least 10 percent of the purchase price.

5. Amongst researchersa team at the University of Connecticut are experimenting with hemp as a potential biodiesel feedstock and are preparing development of a multi-feedstock manufacturing facility.The 200,000 gpy plant will be built with a $1.8 million grant from the DOE. Research shows that hemp-based biodiesel burns at a lower temperature than biodiesel produced from other feedstocks. But there are applications as a feedstock for power gen, via pellets.

6. In 2012, Patriot Biofuels reported that it was testing hemp pellets mixed with coal in Kentucky — the Bluegrass State has long been a a traditional home for hemp growing.

All about hemp for biofuels, “the feedstock that dare not speak its name,” here.

Up next: The "eew" factor

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Two More, From Panda Poo and Your Digestive Tract

It would be rude of us to finish without sharing another two strong contenders for “eew factor” champ.

1. Super-performing human gut bacteria

From Illinois, it was reported by the University of Illinois that researchers have discovered human lower-intestine microbes that can “efficiently break down plant cell walls for the production of next-generation biofuels.” Specifically Bacteroides intestinalis andBacteroides ovatus, the team reported that “the human ones actually were more active (in breaking down hemicellulose) than the enzymes from the cow.”In addition to finding microbes in the cow rumen and termite gut, it looks like we can actually make some contributions ourselves,” the team commented.

2. Found wherever panda poo is collected or sold

But the bacterial digestion hoopla just never dies down. Over at Mississippi State University, researchers discovered that microbes found in the feces of giant pandas can better breakdown the tough cellulose that has been in a barrier to cellulosic ethanol production. Presenting at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver, the researchers said the bacteria they found were similar to those found in the guts of termites that facilitate breaking down the cell walls. The researchers spent a year analyzing panda feces at the Memphis zoo.

Ashli Brown, assisstant professor of biochemistry and leader of the team at Mississippi, commented: “The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo. And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that’s why we focussed on the microbes in the giant panda.”

This article was originally published on Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.

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