Tulane Scientists Are Turning Newspapers Into Biofuel

Scientists at Tulane University have found a bacteria that produces butanol, a biofuel that’s superior to ethanol in just about every way.

Scientists at Tulane University are making newspapers into fuel for your car. They’re taking old copies of The New Orleans Times-Picayune, feeding them to bacteria, and producing butanol, a biofuel that’s superior to ethanol in just about every way except the cost of production.

The bacteria aren’t picky, though. They can subsist not only on newspapers (or, really, any similar product that started out as a tree), but on agricultural waste products like corn stalks. The important part is that they eat cellulose, which is contained in all plants, and that they do it in the presence of oxygen. According to the Tulane scientists, the bacteria, called the TU-103, is the only known strain that produces butanol in an aerobic environment. They found it by poking around in animal poo from New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo, where they collected samples from animals like giraffes, elephants and zebras.

All animals have bacteria in their gut to help them digest food, and their digestive systems, unlike humans', can process grass and other cellulosic material. Bacteria in cows’ digestive systems produce methane, for instance, which is why farms could have been regulated as greenhouse gas producers under a cap-and-trade system. For researchers looking for biofuel-making bacteria, animal guts can yield tens of thousands of new bacteria to check out.

Like ethanol, butanol can be used as an additive to gasoline. But unlike ethanol, using it doesn’t require making any changes to car engines. It’s also less corrosive and contains more energy for the same volume. In fact, one entrepreneur drove his 1992 Buick from Ohio to South Dakota using 100 percent butanol and claimed he got better fuel mileage than he did with a tank of gas.

But butanol is harder to produce in large quantities than ethanol, which is why the United States has thrown its money and efforts behind the latter. In the past few years, though, there’s been more interest in finding an economic way to produce butanol. In March, one biofuels company switched from producing ethanol to producing isobutanol, which can be made into butanol. BP teamed up with DuPont to work on commercializing butanol and began working with the University of California at Berkeley for research. UC Berkeley announced in March that they’d tweaked their butanol-producing bacteria to make the fuel about 10 times faster than any other microbe.

For these companies, though, bacteria that can chow down on newspapers aren’t necessarily an advantage. DuPont points out that one of butanol’s synergies with ethanol is that it can be produced from the same agricultural products. Ethanol-producing plants could also be easily changed over to produce butanol, the company said.

The Tulane bacteria should also be able to produce butanol at a fast pace and at relatively low cost because they work in an oxygenated environment. They’re working on increasing butanol yields and searching for a partner to help them scale up their techniques to a commercial level.

Photo (cc) via flickr user Tulane Public Relations

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