Photo via Wired
You know what they say about wartime fungi and elephant dung. You can't have a--okay, so as far as I know, nobody has ever said anything about the pair. But that could change soon; people might be talking about how both can help churn out cheaper biofuels that might be able to excel where corn-based ethanol has come up short. At least, that's why a couple European firms have such high hopes for an old fungus from World War II and some elephant poop.
Evidently, when the US Army was fighting in the Pacific in World War II, they encountered a strange fungus that could devour their cotton tents. Now, that very fungus could be vital to the future of biofuels. So could elephant feces.
According to Bloomberg:
When the U.S. Army fought in the Pacific during World War II, it discovered a fungus eating soldiers' cotton tents. Six decades later, scientists have genetically engineered the organism to make cheaper biofuels. Danisco A/S of Copenhagen cultivates the fungus to create enzymes that break down plants to produce ethanol.
The potential of fungus that could play a role in bringing biofuels to mass markets might never have been realized if it hadn't been such a pest to the military.
The Army was "trying to isolate the fungus to kill it," and early research on Trichoderma reesei focused on "how to prevent it from working and propagating," he said. The organism naturally produces enzymes, which act as catalysts to break down organic matter. Genencor genetically engineered the fungus to become more effective and to produce new enzymes that are then used to convert cellulose more quickly into sugar, the basic building block for biofuel, Lavielle said.
So where does the elephant dung come in? Studies done by another company to develop a yeast that contained enzymes in elephant dung blazed the trail for this sort of "second generation" biofuel production ("first generation" biofuels are those made directly from crops like corn or sugar cane). The benefit of 2nd generation biofuels is that they can be made from inedible plants--it's just that an efficient, cheaper method of converting them to sugar needs to be discovered before they can compete with the likes of corn.
Which would be a good thing--using corn for ethanol needlessly raises food prices, and corn is resource-exhaustive to grow. Not to mention the fact that there are still a few hungry people left in the world, last time I checked . . . But WWII fungus and elephant dung can help provide an intriguing alternative:
The new fuels don't use the edible parts of corn and wheat and avoid land-use changes that raise greenhouse-gas emissions. Conventional biofuels accounted for as much as 15 percent of food-price inflation from 2007 to 2008, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office said April 8. Converting land to cultivate food crops for fuel can cause carbon-dioxide output 420 times greater than the annual savings, U.S. scientists said in Nature in 2008.
Sounds promising. Who knew an old fungus and some elephant poop could prove so useful?