Last time I reported on the topic of using termite guts to make next generation cellulosic ethanol cheaper and easier, it was 2008. Back then a team of researchers from the University of Florida had just started on the path to analyzing the more than 7,000 genes associated with the production of special enzymes within the termite guts that can break down woody fibers so that the termites can digest them and use them for energy.
This process that goes on in the bellies of hundreds of millions, perhaps trillions, of termites all around the world, day-in and day-out—a process that many homeowners fear in the depths of their hearts—is exactly what the next generation ethanol crowd needs to make fuel from woody waste such as thinned forest debris and agricultural residues.
In a paper published in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the researchers are now providing an update of sorts. The researchers have reportedly found that a group of enzymes found in termite salivary glands may just do the trick.
As most Gas 2.0 readers know, cellulosic ethanol is widely seen as a much better solution to some of our energy needs than the currently abundant corn ethanol. Made from plant waste, woody debris and other such non-edible organic material, cellulosic ethanol addresses the food vs. fuel conundrum. In addition, it has a much more positive effect on the environment than corn ethanol by reducing more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Cellulosic ethanol is not without its hitches though. All that cellulosic material needs to be broken down before it can be fermented into ethanol. Most of the methods typically employed to break it down involve high temperatures and nasty chemicals—think of it as a stomach on steroids. What the University of Florida researchers have now discovered is that there’s a suite of enzymes found in termite salivary glands that can do the same thing, but do it at room temperatures and without nearly as many chemicals—making the process cheaper, safer and less environmentally damaging.
“Once we figure out the best way to integrate this sort of enzyme into the process, it could drop the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol significantly,” said University of Florida entomologist Mike Scharf, who led the research and was highlighted in my post two years ago. “We still have a long way to go before we’re finished. But, in the meanwhile, we can start putting what we have discovered to good use.”
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