I never understood the fascination with panda bears. They’re kind of dicks, and they closer in relation to garbage-eating raccoons than actual bears. But they may have a use beyond giving jobless hippies something to protest. Bacteria discovered in their poo may hold the key to making biofuel from otherwise useless biomass.
The problem biofuel makers keep running into is how to break down the tough fibrous cellulose that gives plants their rigidity. Biofuels like ethanol need to break down biomass from plants like corn and sugar cane (which are already high in sugar content) into simple sugars, which can be refined into fuel. But there’s a very limited selection of plants that can be properly (and profitably) processed into sugars, and they require a lot of heat, energy, and time to produce.
The bacteria in pandas’ small intestines could change that though. Because panda bears basically feast only on bamboo, their digestive system is remarkably adept at breaking down that fibrous cellulose thanks to a super enzyme that streamlines the process. Scientists from the American Chemical Society estimate that the bacteria could convert 95% of biomass into simple sugars without the need for high-energy, high-heat catalysts currently used in biofuel production.
In otherwise, simple bacteria from droppings of one of the rarest animals in the world could hold the key to cheap, usable biofuels that may save mankind from itself. Does anyone else feel the overwhelming irony?
Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.