Monday, September 30, 2013

Chemistry in the News: Biofuels

     Scientists are currently trying to create new fuels in order to move away from our dependence on oil and into something that can be more sustainable long term.  One scientist, Dr. Ashli Brown, Ph.D., is looking into new ways to convert lignocellulose, in plant material humans can't consume into biofuels.

            Lignocellulose is made of cellulose (40-50%), hemicellulose (25-35%) and lignin (15-20%)


     Currently, producing ethanol, the most common alternative fuel, is raising concerns about potential price increases and food shortages if food crops like corn and soybeans continue to be used for its production. Using plant parts like corn stalks and cobs that are not used in food production would be a better source of ethanol but processing the plant waste and breaking down the lignocellulose, with current methods, is costly and requires heat and high pressure or acids. Using a known biological model Dr. Brown and her colleagues are studying bacteria in the guts of giant pandas.

     Dr. Brown and her students have identified more than 40 microbes living in the guts of giant pandas from studying the pandas' feces. They are hoping what is gained from this research is a cheaper, easier method for producing biofuels. Through their research they have found that the pandas can break down the lignocellulose, from the bamboo they eat, into simple sugars which can then be transformed into oils and fats used into biodiesel production.

     The scientists are looking to expand their research to include red pandas, who also eat bamboo, which they hope will help society become more sustainable and also allow them to learn more about pandas' digestion from a conservation viewpoint,

"These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal's digestive system and the microbes that live in it, which is important because most of the diseases pandas get affect their guts," said Brown. "Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important from a conservation standpoint, as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity."
I drew the cellulose and hemicellulose.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed when I read the url for your second link, "panda-poop-power". Haha. But seriously, being able to convert organic material into biodiesel fuels would not only help my wallet, but it is has the potential to transform how we are gridlocked onto fossil fuels, both economically and for day-to-day living. If alternative fuel sources were both cheaper and more efficient than fossil fuels, I believe people would give them a try. Hooray for researchers willing to deal with 'crap'!