Fuelling Tomorrow with the News of Yesterday.

Photo by GiantsFanatic | flickr.com

Photo by GiantsFanatic | flickr.com

In the cut-throat world of mass communication, it is no secret that the newspaper of today is merely a shadow of what its former self represented. Whereas a century ago, the traditional, hard-copy newspaper was regarded as the cornerstone of human communication in much of the world, today it is seen as a somewhat outdated and inefficient mode of communication, outmuscled largely by television and the internet. So, naturally, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine a day in the not-so-distant future where the newspaper will be old news, and science is all too excited with how it may put millions of old print copies to good use.

One alternative, proposed by researchers at Tulane University, explores the ability of a new bacterial strain named TU-103, which can effectively convert cellulose from paper into butanol biofuel. When you consider that over 300 million tons of cellulose-containing materials are discarded each year, the numbers are quite staggering.

Today, ethanol derived from corn is the most widely-utlized biofuel, but it contains much inefficiency that would be largely improved by using butanol, which unlike ethanol, does not require engine modifications and could be used in existing cars. From a greenhouse gases standpoint, butanol releases significantly less greenhouse gases and requires less water for production in comparison to conventional gasoline. Yet historically, however, the production of bio-butanol has been largely hindered by the high costs associated with the enzymes needed for the conversion, and the specific reaction conditions required.

The discovery of TU-103, however, is special in that it can convert cellulose even in the presence of oxygen, whereas all other processes in the past have involved strict oxygen-free conditions. Researchers hope that will significantly reduce costs in butanol production, and further studies suggest that cellulose-derived biofuels, especially from wood, are likely to become an economically competitive industry by the year 2020 thanks to high energy security and abundant bioavailability. In fact, cellulose is the most abundant organic material on earth, and unlike the raw materials for corn biofuels, may be derived from non-food crop sources.

Like many biomass-dependent alternative fuel sources, however, cellulose conversion could potentially result in soil degradation and erosion over time, and further technologies remain to be developed to combat such issues. One thing however remains certain: this technology is undoubtedly more efficient than current petroleum-based options, and the future promises many more good news.