The Giant Pandas Ya Ya and Le Le at the Memphis Zoo are helping scientist Ashli Brown in her search to improve current methods for producing biofuels from non-food plant material, as opposed to corn and other useful crops.
Ms. Brown is studying the microbes found in the panda’s faeces. “We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy,” she said.
One of the major challenges for producing biofuels on a large scale is the difficulty of breaking down the biomass to release the fermentable sugars trapped within the cellulose. It is thought that the microbes found within the panda’s guts could provide a new method of quickly and efficiently achieving this result.
Nearly 99% of a panda’s diet consists of tough, woody shots and stems of bamboo, of which they eat between 20 and 40 pounds a day. In order to break down the woody bamboo the panda’s guts contain several different bacteria. To live in such an environment the bacteria must be strong, but also fast working and efficient due to the shortness of the panda’s digestive tract.
Ms. Brown explained that “the time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of bamboo.”
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Woody biomass such as corn stalks, cobs, wood chips, and switch grass are considered perfect sources of material for creating biofuel as they do not compete for precious crop land; however breaking down the material is costly and time consuming, often requiring expensive treatment process using heat, high pressure, and acid.
Ms. Brown is working in conjunction with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has identified the specific bacteria that breakdown lignocellulose into simple sugars for fermenting ethanol. She has also found bacteria that can turn those cellulosic sugars into oils and fats which are used to produce biodiesel.
The use of these bacteria could help create a more cost effective method for producing biomass-based biofuels on a commercial scale.
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com
Charles is a writer for Oilprice.com