While plant-based biofuels hold a lot of promise, many of these fuels require complicated, expensive, energy-intensive processes to make even a little sustainable fuel. Hoping to find influence or a breakthrough from Mother Nature, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are turning to the bubbling cauldrons of Yellowstone National Park. They are looking for a strain of bacteria that can break down biomass into usable biofuels in a single, “one-pot” process.
The “one-pot” biofuel solution would streamline the breakdown process, allowing biomass to be thrown into a cauldron with a microorganism that breaks down the plant matter and produces usable ethanol, no further steps required. Right now most plant-to-ethanol conversion processes require multiple stages at high temperatures and pressures in order to break down the lignin, which allows plants to form rigid, upright bodies.
The Oak Ridge researchers are hoping to find a bacteria in Yellowstone’s natural hot springs that can break down lignin in a one-pot process that is both cost and time efficient. Their studies have led them to Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis, a natural bacteria found in the hot springs that does its best work at high temperatures.
C. obsidiansis was tested against four carbon structures, including switchgrass. The researchers studied the reaction to switchgrass as the bacteria processed an expanded set of proteins to help break down the plant’s cell structure. Researchers hope that this natural bacteria can lead them to discovering a new process for creating biofuels from plant matter. Other research has show the potential for bacteria like E. coli to turn plants into fuel, but perhaps Yellowstone’s famous hot springs hold the secret to sustainable fuel.
Source: Oak Ride National Laboratory