Researchers at Tulane University have discovered a strain of bacteria that turns waste into car fuel.
If there’s one word that has dominated the past ten years, it’s “oil.” Everyone needs it, and everyone has an opinion about where we should get it, how we should sell it, what we should do to get it, and when we’ll run out of it. What if we could throw all of those questions in the trashcan and then use the paper they were written on to replace it? Well, in the words of my favorite mad scientist: Good news, everyone! Researchers at Tulane University have discovered a new bacterium with the ability to break down waste and plant matter into butanol.
“Butanol?” you ask in a condescending voice. “Surely you mean ethanol, my good man.”
“Ho, ho!” I reply. “Take a seat and let me teach you a little something about the magical world of biofuels. And don’t call me Shirley.”
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when you’re talking about biofuels is ethanol. Ethanol has worked wonders as a fuel component (there’s some in your tank right now), but can’t quite make the leap to an actual gasoline replacement. For one, ethanol has a very high miscibility with water, meaning that when the two interact, they blend uselessly together. This creates all sorts of issues with long-range pipe transportation, which, incidentally, is how gas gets to the pumps. Even if we had less trouble getting ethanol to where it needs to go, it still doesn’t work well by itself, and definitely not in that grass-green 1995 Pontiac Bonneville you unsuccessfully try to get dates with.
Butanol, on the other hand, is amazingly similar to gasoline, giving it two major advantages over its better-known brother. Firstly, butanol can be used in your Bonneville (though it still won’t get you any dates) and any other car currently on the road. Secondly, it’s convenient to produce and easy to transport.
Now for the million-dollar question: Where the heck can we get it? Animal feces, obviously. David Mullin of Tulane University and his crack squad of science-loving henchmen discovered a new strain of Clostridium bacteria that can produce butanol directly and efficiently. They’ve named it TU-103, and it eats anything containing cellulose. That puts green plant matter and that old copy of the New York Times your mom left on the coffee table at the top of its menu.
According to Harshad Velankar, a post-doc whiz-kid working with Mullin: “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.” So, this stuff is essentially free? This can’t possibly get any better, right? Wrong! Butanol is also more energy efficient than gasoline and less corrosive. Plus, its ability to be produced in oxygen rich environments means that mass production and distribution would be a cakewalk. Okay, now it just sounds like someone is making this up.
There you have it, folks, Mr. Strickland was officially wrong about Doc Brown. Maybe it’s not crazy to think that some day soon we can just hook up a specialized garbage disposal to our gas tanks and power our cars. Now if we could only get our hands on that flux capacitor I’ve been hearing about…