Molecule Model of IsobutanolEnlarge Photo
Tulane University scientists have discovered a strain of bacteria capable of turning old newspaper into butanol. Better yet, the newly-discovered bacteria is capable of doing so in the presence of oxygen, something other strains of cellulose-eating bacteria are not.
To be precise, the bacteria is the first to convert the cellulose found in old newspapers directly into butanol, which can then be used to fuel vehicles or create a gasoline/butanol blend. Since the research is still in its infancy, we won’t be seeing any “brew it yourself” butanol kits on the market just yet.
The bacteria was discovered in animal dung by Tulane researchers, and named TU-103 in honor of the university. While any commercial applications are still years away, researchers felt there was enough promise in the technology to patent the particular strain of bacteria isolated.
Although newspaper readership is on the decline, there still roughly 323 million tons of cellulosic materials discarded in the U.S. each year. How much butanol this would produce remains to be seen, since the Tulane researchers weren’t quoting specific production numbers from the TU-103 bacteria.
Compared to other biofuels, such as ethanol, butanol is more energy-dense and can be used to fuel existing cars and trucks without engine modifications. Still, automakers would be hesitant to approve butanol (or butanol blends) for use in their vehicles without a considerable amount of further research and testing.
The Tulane research is hardly the first on converting waste into forward motion. California’s Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) recently opened a tri-generation fuel cell and hydrogen energy station, and it uses sewage biogas to produce hydrogen (as well as heat and electricity).
The hydrogen comes from recaptured methane gas, which is converted to hydrogen via a process developed by FuelCell Energy. The hydrogen then goes to a fuel cell, where electricity generated is used to power the facility. Leftover hydrogen is further purified to fuel-grade hydrogen, then sent to a hydrogen fueling station operated by partner company AirPower.
There’s no shortage of methane gas, and researchers estimate that enough hydrogen could be produced from existing methane-generating sources to fuel 200 million fuel cell vehicles.