Microbes found in primordial hot springs, dead plants and living plants such as switch grass can transform cellulose into sugar, which can be fermented into cellulosic ethanol -- a recipe for a promising biofuel.
Grass Into “Grassoline”? Turning Cellulose into Biofuels
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:
We're back with NBC News IN DEPTH tonight, our entire, network-wide series of reports on energy we're calling OUR PLANET. Tonight, how some people look out and see empty fields as another solution to all our energy problems and an alternative to ethanol that is squeezed from corn. NBC's Lee Cowan reports tonight on why the grass may in fact be greener.
LEE COWAN reporting:
Buffalo aren't the only ones roaming through the snow-dusted valleys of Yellowstone these days. In this otherworldly landscape, some of the nation's top minds are on the move, too.
Mr. MARTIN KELLER (Oak Ridge National Laboratory): See all this decaying root here? That's exactly what we're trying to get at.
COWAN: Researchers are combing these primordial cauldrons for the world's oldest inhabitants: microbes, whose appetite for dead plants may one day help fuel our cars.
Mr. KELLER: They're eating the root like we eat a good steak.
COWAN: The microbes can transform cellulose, that fibrous material in the cells of plants, into sugar, which can then be fermented into cellulosic ethanol. The microbes in cows' stomachs turn grass into energy every day.
Termites do the same with wood. If the microbes' dine-and-dash process could be copies cheaply, not just corn, but virtually every plant could be a source of fuel.
Mr. KELLER: We might have a solution in our hands right now.
COWAN: A long way away in the farm fields of Tennessee, the other half of this groundbreaking research is being plucked from the ground. It's called switch grass. Farmers like Tim Brannon are being paid to grow it as a biofuel test crop.
Mr. TIM BRANNON: We had heard about switch grass. We had never seen the stuff.
COWAN: It's cheap, easy to farm and, because it doesn't need a lot of water or fertilizer, it's more environmentally friendly than corn.
Unidentified Man: It's sort of a peace of mind crop. It's going to grow.
COWAN: Best of all, it stores so much energy in its 10-foot stalks that it's earned the reputation as nature's solar battery.
Man: There's over twice as much ethanol in an acre of switch grass as there is in an acre of corn.
COWAN: And here's the fascinating part. Since cows' stomachs and termite guts don't quite meet the commercial standard for speed and efficiency when it comes to turning switch grass into "grassoline," some figure why not design a microbe that can do it, bio-tinker with Mother Nature a little bit. And now the race is on to see just who can do that first.
Professor LEE LYND: I believe this is the defining challenge of our time.
COWAN: And that's what the microbes like?
Prof. LYND: That's what you would feed to the microbes.
COWAN: Professor Lee Lynd sees unlocking the energy potential of cellulose as the space race for a new generation.
Prof. LYND: I think hundreds of years from now, when people look back, they'll really judge us by how well we did in responding to this.
Right now we are the only people in the world that have this culture.
COWAN: It means these are all your genetically-engineered young'uns?
Prof. LYND: Exactly.
COWAN: Whether living in hot springs or petri dishes in a lab, they are nature's microscopic bread crumbs that could one day make these amber waves the energy wave of the future. Lee Cowan, NBC News, Paris, Tennessee.
Biotechnology is technology based on living systems and organisms. Specifically, it is the use of any biological process for agricultural, medical, industrial or environmental purposes. This includes everything from creating a new type of apple to developing a vaccine for a deadly disease.
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