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World War II Leaves Behind Promising Biofuels Fungus

A fungi famous during World War II for chewing through army tents in the Pacific is now being studied by scientists who hope to use its chewing prowess to break down biomass for biofuels more efficiently.

The war-time Trichoderma reesei fungi, being studied by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is part of a global effort to create biofuels from plants that are plentiful but not part of the food supply.

While this particular type of fungus used to grow on and destroy army tents in the Pacific during World War II, today it is emerging as a potential biofuels poster child because of its ability to churn out enzymes that chew through molecules like complex sugars. Put more simply, scientists believe the fungus will, for instance, help break down wood for biofuels much faster.

Related article: Brazil Grapples with Biofuel Supply Glut

The breakdown of large sugar polymers into smaller compounds that are then converted to fuel compounds is the final step in the effort to make fuels from materials like switchgrass and corn stalks—and to ensure their commercial viability.

"The ultimate goal is to begin with a plant material like corn stalks, for instance, and to subject it to a cocktail of enzymes that would convert those plants to fuel," chemist Aaron Wright, who led the P.N.N.L. team, was quoted as saying. "It takes a series of steps to do that, and the cost has to come down if these fuels are to compete seriously with traditional hydrocarbon-based fuels."

So far, research is promising. Trichoderma reesei produces several dozen different enzymes, all of which have shown a high propensity for breaking down large sugar polymers and turning them into smaller energy-storing compounds to produce biofuels.

Wright notes that identifying exactly which enzymes are doing most of the work you need done is crucial for making the process commercially viable.

Related article: Rocky Mountain Tree-Killers, The New Biomass

"We're trying to keep tabs on the precise activity of every enzyme as each goes through a very complex process, as conditions like temperature and pH vary, to measure their activity through each stage… Lignocellulose is what stands between you and a tankful of fuel created from corn stalks or switchgrass."

By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com



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