A man-made microbe may one day produce cheaper and more sustainable
biofuels like ethanol.
Will the entire world, in the not-too-distant future, be powered by ... slime?
In recent years, scientists have found that blue-green algae may provide yet another new way to go green.
The man-made microbe makes cellulose and simple sugars that could be turned into ethanol and other biofuels a cheap alternative to oil based fuels.
Scientists from The University of Texas at Austin, who designed the new algae, say the microbe
could provide a significant portion of the nations transportation fuel if production can be scaled up.
Along with cellulose, the cyanobacteria developed by Professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. and Dr. David Nobles Jr. secrete glucose and sucrose. These simple sugars are the major sources used to produce ethanol.
A sustainable way to produce ethanol
Sources being used or considered for ethanol production in the United States include switchgrass and wood (cellulose), corn (glucose) and sugarcane (sucrose). True algae are also being developed for biodiesel production.
Brown sees a major benefit in using cyanobacteria to produce ethanol as a reduction in the amount of arable land turned over to fuel production and decreased pressure on forests.
The pressure is on all these corn farmers to produce corn for non-food sources, says Brown, the Johnson & Johnson Centennial Chair in Plant Cell Biology.
That same demand, for sucrose, is now being put on Brazil to open up more of the Amazon rainforest to produce more sugar cane for our growing energy needs. We dont want to do that. Youll never get the forests back.
and Nobles calculate that the approximate area needed to produce ethanol with corn to fuel all U.S. transportation needs is around 820,000 square miles, an area almost the size of the entire Midwest. They hypothesize they could produce an equal amount of ethanol using an area half that size, but they caution that there
is a lot of work ahead before cyanobacteria can provide such fuel in the field.
Work with laboratory scale photobioreactors has shown the potential for a 17-fold increase in productivity. If this can be achieved in the field and on a large scale, only
3.5 percent of the area growing corn could be used for cyanobacterial biofuels.
Cyanobacteria are just one of many potential solutions for renewable energy, says Brown.
There will be many avenues to become completely energy independent, and we want to be part of the overall effort, Brown says. Petroleum is a precious commodity. We should be using it to make useful products, not just burning it and turning it into carbon dioxide.
Since the study was published, more research by scientists from Florida to California have taken up the challenge to study algae as an alternative fuel. In more practical terms, the race is now on to bring to market this promising, sustainable energy source.