Cellulose is the most abundant naturally occurring molecule on the planet, a potentially limitless feed stock for the production of fuels like ethanol and hydrogen. But unless you are a termite, breaking down cellulose into fuel is next to impossible.
Because our cellulosic ethanol technology is so primitive, the biofuel industry currently relies on crops like sugarcane and corn. Instead of using the actual fiber for fuel, the sugars are expelled and the fiber is discarded. This makes for a simple, yet costly conversion to ethanol.
The result -- huge swathes of the rainforest in Brazil have been felled only to be replaced by sugarcane plantations that are allegedly even worse than the slave-run plantations of the 19th century. An article this week in Vice Magazine
documents the horrendous working conditions on these plantations.
Photo by Ricardo Funari
But what if we had a machine so sophisticated, it could break down anything from a scrap of wood to a clump of dried grass? This machine would eliminate the need to grow massive and costly sugar plantations, preserve our rainforests and allow us to turn anything into fuel.
Well, in fact we do have such a machine. It's called the termite.. or specifically the termite intestine.
Like a cow, the termite has a series of stomachs, each acting as a carefully controlled "reaction chamber" that progressively converts cellulose into fuel. Any homeowner who has dealt with a termite invasion knows the termite's power in converting solid wood into dust.
To give you a sense of just how efficient a termite is, Andreas Brune of the Max Planck Institute
for Terrestrial Microbiology says that if you look at the numbers, the termite can turn one single sheet of paper into 2 liters of hydrogen gas
. And that is with next to zero energy input, no heat and no toxic chemical additives or byproducts.
The termite's secret is the complex interaction of several powerful microorganisms inside its intestinal track. Researchers have travelled to the homeland of the termite, Costa Rica, to collect genetic samples and are working to crack the termite code. If they are successful a new method for converting nature's most abundant waste product into fuel may be on the horizon.