November 11, 2008

Rare fungus munches cellulose, pees diesel, solves energy crisis?

I know what you're thinking. What the hell is a fungus-flocked petri dish doing being featured a car blog?

Gilocladium roseum
is its name. Dr. Gary Strobel discovered it in the rainforests of Patagonia. What he's found could be the solution to our energy needs for the next century and beyond.

How? Because it removes a very energy-intensive and wasteful step in producing biofuels.

Let's use corn-based ethanol as an example. In order to turn corn into a usable fuel, the cellulose fibers and sugars have to be fermented to unlock the carbon molecules trapped within. Those carbon molecules then have to be synthesized into complex hydrocarbons. In order for this to happen on an industrial scale, both steps require a lot of heat and a lot of pressure.

And the microbes used in fermentation are very picky eaters. They'll happily gorge themselves on simple sugars like those in an ear of corn. But throw a corn stalk into the mix and they just turn up their little noses. At most ethanol distilleries, the stalks are simply tossed out.

So a lot of the plant gets wasted and what is used takes a lot of energy to process.

Gilocladium roseum can solve both of these problems. Strobel discovered that the fungus consumes wood and synthesizes it into the same kinds of hydrocarbons found in diesel fuel. Strobel has dubbed the secretions "myco-diesel."

"A step in the production process could be skipped," Strobel said in a press release.
That said, Strobel admits that industrial production is a long way off.

"This report presents no information on the cost-effectiveness or other details to make
G. roseum an alternative fuel source," Strobel and his team wrote of their discovery. "Its ultimate value may reside in the genes/enzymes that control hydrocarbon production, and our paper is a necessary first step that may lead to development programs to make this a commercial venture."

The next step involves researching the fungus' genome. Work has already begun under the direction of Dr. Strobel's son Scott,
who chairs the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Montana State University now holds a patent on G.roseum and the myco-diesel process.

With enough money and time, our future fill-ups might come not from the ground, but from the fungus among us.

Learn more:

Read Dr. Strobel's paper here. [PDF]

A podcast of Dr. Strobel talking about myco-diesel is available

[Photo Credit: Montana State University/ Gary Strobel]

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