July 11, 2008

Fungus to the Rescue: Applied Mycology Could Help Provide Energy

Biofuels are a fine idea in principle as a solution to the world's fuel crisis, but not everybody has come up with a good way of turning biomass into energy. Using food crops as a raw material, as we've seen, shifts the problem from energy availability to food availability. It's not a real solution. Brazil long ago came up with a better solution, using things like waste from sugar cane processing as their raw material. Still, the method they've used to convert biomass into ethanol requires significant energy input, so it isn't as efficient as it could be.

That's where fungi come into the picture. A team of scientists in the UK is developing a method whereby a fungus (which one isn't specified in the article) is used to break down cellulose-rich agricultural waste into fuel. Good idea!

Fungus fuel of the future say Warwickshire scientists
By Mary Griffin

BRITAIN'S cars could soon be fuelled by fungus, thanks to a team of Warwickshire scientists.

As Gordon Brown this week sounded a warning about biofuels, Warwick University scientists were already working on the solution, using fungus as their secret weapon.

The boom in biofuels - turning crops into energy - has led to fewer food crops, higher food prices and in some parts of the world, deforestation.

But instead of growing crops to make biofuels, scientists at Wellesbourne's Horticultural Research Institute want to use 'second generation' products, like stalks from cornfields, unused stalks from broccoli and sprouts, or the straw left over from wheat.

But because these waste products are hard to break down, turning them into biofuels is costly and energy intensive...

...the Warwickshire team is using super fungus and bacteria to break down the waste, making biofuel production more energy efficient and cost-effective.

And the oil extracted from the waste products can be used not only for energy, but for chemical products like cling film, shampoo and detergent...
Many fungi break down cellulose for a living; some also break down lignin. Those which break down only cellulose are called brown rotters and those that break down both are white rotters. The latter could, in theory, be used to turn wood into fuel, too.

On a more local note, there are talks in the work right now for similar research to start up at my lab in conjunction with a local entrepreneur. That research would be more geared toward the recycling of paper and wood products, but the principle is quite similar.

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