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Biotech Transportation Science

Making Fuel With Newspapers and Bacteria 185

Debuting on the front page, Lifyre writes "Scientists at Tulane have found a natural bacteria (dubbed TU-103) that produces butanol. While butanol-producing bacteria aren't new, there are a few important points about this particular bacterium. It is the first natural bacteria that converts cellulose directly to butanol without the cellulose needing to be processed into sugar first, and it can do this in the presence of oxygen, which kills other butanol-producing bacteria. The simplification of the process could significantly decrease the production costs of butanol. This bacteria could allow virtually any plant product, such as newspaper or grass clippings, to be used to produce fuel for conventional vehicles."
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Making Fuel With Newspapers and Bacteria

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  • Wouldn't it save more energy to not print so much useless paper in the first place?
    • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

      We'd save more energy if we simply didn't recycle it, and used it for other stuff in it's raw already used form. There's a reason why we have tree farms, and these tree farms exist specifically for the paper and pulp industries.

    • This story has nothing in particular to do with newspaper. They just spun it that way because if you want to use cellulose for biofuel, the first question is where to get the cellulose? Slash and burn the rainforests to make farmland? Take over land that was producing food for hungry people? So, starting with examples of waste cellulose is a tactic to head off those questions. How much waste cellulose is actually available, I don't know.
      • Re:Maybe (Score:4, Interesting)

        by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Wednesday August 31, 2011 @12:32AM (#37261634) Journal

        Actually, this would be very inefficient farming materials specifically for the cause. However, every existing food farm (that's right corn, wheat, and all) has a left over product called silage. This is the parts of the stalks and such that generally gets ground up and dumped back into the field. Some farmers will attempt to collect this and use it for animal bedding or feed. Not all of it is compatible with feed and most animals will snub it given the chance.

        Anyways, an existing corn field in good growing conditions could yield as much as 16 tons of silage per acre. And that's while growing food crops (despite the majority of corn grown isn't meant for human consumption). Now don't confuse refuse silage as cover crop silage which is a bit different in strategy.

        Either way, there is a lot of untapped cellulose wast that could be somewhat easily moved into a program like this.

  • in his novel "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub", where a bacteria voraciously ate paper, causing paperalysis for the humans (no identity papers, no money, no books) and the death of the Earth's biosphere (because it ate all the trees).

    • ...with the additional plot element that it turns the cellulose into flammable material...

    • by JSBiff ( 87824 )

      Well, other than the bit about the death of the Earth's biosphere, it doesn't sound too bad. ;-)

      I mean, nowadays, identity 'papers' are made of plastic (my Ohio drivers license, at least; my passport is still paper, but could be made from plastics easy enough). Money is mostly electronic, and there's always metal coins. Books are mostly electronic (though I daresay we'd lose some historical books, scrolls, etc which have never been scanned).

  • First, cellulose is a sugar. It is a long chain polymer of simple sugars. This is why it has the "ose" suffix, just like sucrose and glucose. You don't have to convert cellulose into sugar.

    Second, newspaper is already a fuel. It burns great. They even sell "portable grills" that are nothing more than big tin cans with some holes, into which you stuff some newspaper that you light afire and cook your hamburgers on top of.

    • by Nutria ( 679911 )

      Except that portable grills are not "conventional vehicles".

    • I can't wait to go the gas station and pump newspapers into my car!

    • Re:Huh? (Score:5, Informative)

      by OSU ChemE ( 974181 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @08:13PM (#37259990) Journal
      Yes, cellulose is a polymer of simple sugars. However most organisms lack the enzymes to break the chain up into its individual units. Ruminants and termites have symbiotic bacteria that digest it for them, and some species of fungus can break down cellulose (think mushrooms on a fallen tree) but as it stands, using cellulosic feedstocks require breaking up the chain via enzymes (expensive) or acids (nasty) so that bacteria can utilize it. And yes, newspaper does burn quite well, but I'd like to see you stuff it in your gas tank.
      • Re:Huh? (Score:5, Funny)

        by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @10:29PM (#37260910)
        more to the point, we'd like to see him stuff rolls of newspapers into his "it's just sugar" face for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and see how much energy he gets.
      • by jfengel ( 409917 )

        So what I've never figured out: why can't we just burn trees rather than coal in power plants? You could run cars from the electricity, and wood (unlike coal) is renewable. The only CO2 you release is CO2 you sequester.

        Too messy? Too expensive? Too slow to grow?

        • Too messy? Too expensive? Too slow to grow?

          Yes, that's pretty much it. Lots of soot-producing compounds (that's why they make charcoal; it burns cleanly as a result of all the non-carbon stuff having been cooked off), the transport is expensive, and trees take too long to grow. Some kind of cane is probably the best bet, but then you've got to dehydrate it.

          • by jfengel ( 409917 )

            Wouldn't that at least be more efficient than trying to manipulate it into being an alcohol?

    • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Hartree ( 191324 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @09:16PM (#37260454)

      "First, cellulose is a sugar."

      No. It's a polymer of simple sugars.

      What you said is like saying starch is a sugar. It's also a polymer of simple sugars.

      Take a look at: []

      You might as well say protein is an amino acid since it's a polymer of amino acids. It's the same thinking and just as wrong.

      • by Raenex ( 947668 )

        You might as well say protein is an amino acid since it's a polymer of amino acids. It's the same thinking and just as wrong.

        At least he's living up to his handle (Obfuscant).

  • I wonder if it's more resistant to the very butanol it produces? Some yeasts seem to have a higher tolerance for the stuff. It'll be interesting to see which, if any of these technologies take off, or if they all wind up becoming unintended vaportech.
    • Re:Alchohol? (Score:5, Informative)

      by eparker05 ( 1738842 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @08:07PM (#37259926)

      First off, if it is n-butanol that is being produced, the water solubility of n-butanol (at 25 C) would only allow a ~6% concentration, thus the rest would float to the surface and would be easily skimmed off in a moderately pure state. Now I don't know the temperature dependence of the solubility so perhaps this wouldn't be practical at fermentation temperatures.

      Similar research is being done by Dr. Shota Atsumi et. al; they produced an organism with an engineered metabolic pathway which can produce isobutyraldehyde. This compound has a lower boiling point such that at the elevated temperatures of fermentation it is easily distilled from the culture without having to kill or filter the bacteria. Again, the issue of culture toxicity due to the metabolic product is avoided through in situ purification of the product.

  • by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @07:47PM (#37259742) Journal

    So, we can turn old newspapers into fuel. This could create, I dunno, hundreds of gallons of fuel a year. Ok, let's say thousands. Ok ok ok, let's say a million gallons a year. This will surely make a dent in the 380 million gallons the US uses ( every day.

    I was going to say, this will be useful on an individual basis because it gives savvy people the opportunity to make their own fuel at home. I mean... wait a minute... I haven't bought a newspaper in probably six years. I guess I'll need to start stealing my neighbors' paper.

    • by werfu ( 1487909 )
      Cellulose is part of every plant. Everything from cut grass to wood surplus and maze cane could be used to do it. This imply that a city could harvest lawn and convert it locally to fuel. This has a huge implication over fuel production.
      • How huge? Nationally we use 138 billion (with a b) gallons of gasoline a year. I don't have a breakdown for a medium size town, but I strongly suspect the process would be doing good producing enough gas to cut the lawn needed for the process. Not that this would be a bad thing. Hey, free gas for the lawnmowers. And the lawn is cut. But I think it's important to be realistic. We're several orders of magnitude short of the volume necessary to make any real difference in people's lives.

    • by wagnerrp ( 1305589 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @09:04PM (#37260372)

      I was thinking the same thing. 9 million barrels of gasoline comes to around 1.3 million tons per day, or just under 500 million tons per year. The article claims 'at least 323 million tons' of material would be available per year as feedstock, but it's not like all of that can be converted. A modest guess would say 5-10% of our current gasoline consumption could be offset by this mechanism, if it works as advertised. Far more desirable than your guess at 0.25%, but it won't be a "game changer". It will only be one of many technologies that will have to work together to become sustainable.

      The bigger issue is that gasoline consumption is only about half of our yearly petroleum usage, and for some fields such as aviation, there is simply no alternative. The automotive and rail industries can use electric motors. Anything on a track can draw power straight off the grid, while cars can use heavy batteries. Aircraft don't have the luxury of weight, and our current batteries are a good order of magnitude too heavy to be used. A renewable fuel source for them would be far more important than for cars. Of course, if we convert everything else over to electric over the next few decades, there will be enough petroleum to last the aviation industry several centuries. Presumably we will have come up with something to replace the kerosene fired gas turbine by then.

      • The bigger issue is that gasoline consumption is only about half of our yearly petroleum usage, and for some fields such as aviation, there is simply no alternative.

        Not entirely true.

        Back in the 1930s, when the Germans were planning for war, the realised they needed an important ingredient for their war machine: oil. But they don't have oil over there. So instead they made their own oil, mostly from coal, using the Fischer-Tropsch process. This process can make oil from basically any carbohydrate source, including cellulose. All you have to do is gasify them into synthesis gas (a mixture of CO and H2). Plants are still in operation today, but there are not many, as th

        • What I mean to say is... the aviation industry simply has no alternative to liquid hydrocarbon fuels, whether that be petroleum, syngas, or cellulose based.

          Corn ethanol is a joke, created for the sole purpose of driving up food prices. Hydrogen and methane would have to be stored cryogenically, and under intense pressures, so an airliner crash would result in a massive fuel air bomb, comparable to a low yield nuclear explosion. A nuclear fired gas turbine would have the power/energy to weight ratio, but a

          • What I mean to say is... the aviation industry simply has no alternative to liquid hydrocarbon fuels, whether that be petroleum, syngas, or cellulose based.

            Which, in itself, is not a problem. If this kerosene is bio-based, it's carbon neutral. Carbon in carbohydrate form is just a very efficient way to store a massive amount of energy, that can be handled easily and pretty safely, and that can be released easily with combustion. As energy source (maybe better to say: as energy storage medium) it's just hard to beat.

            Corn ethanol is a joke indeed, if only because of the massive amounts of waste it generates (i.e. the rest of the corn plant). Though with this bu

    • by similar_name ( 1164087 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @09:36PM (#37260598)
      Why does everyone keep focusing on the newspapers? Usually things that start with 'such as' aren't exclusive. The summary also mentions grass clippings. So grass clippings and newspaper may not make a dent but since about 33% of all plant matter is made up of cellulose I don't think getting the cellulose would be a problem.
      • 380 million gallons per day. So many good ideas run afowl of orders of magnitude.

        • So many good ideas run afowl of orders of magnitude.

          Well, at least you've got lots of chickens.

        • by similar_name ( 1164087 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @10:25PM (#37260892)
          Yes that's a big number (and only a 1/4 of the what the world uses as a whole) and would probably be even more if the global economy hadn't been sluggish the last few years but I don't think it's orders of magnitude more than the amount of cellulose on the planet. I'm not presuming that we turn all plants into fuel but 33% of all plant matter is cellulose. While it's hard to come up with accurate numbers the earth's biomass, on the low end it would appear that cellulose would comprise about 40 billion tons. Of course for any honest consideration we would have to look at how much we could potentially collect and how much usable fuel we would get out of it.

          Besides, orders of magnitude are not as overwhelming as they seem. Oil production today is orders of magnitude more than it was 100 years ago, yet somehow we got to where we are. Help me understand the reasoning in disparaging a technology in its infancy because it is not instant solution. 10% here and 10% there can add up. Humans will continue to use more and more energy (if history is any indication). I don't think anything needs to instantly supplant petroleum, we just need to keep finding new ways to get energy wherever we can.
          • > but I don't think it's orders of magnitude more than the amount of cellulose on the planet.

            I don't either. But what amount of that cellulose could be practically processed into fuel? I mean, we could consider all the cellulose on the entire planet, but then, what would we breathe?

            • what amount of that cellulose could be practically processed into fuel?

              I agree, and related to that is how much energy goes in compared to how much comes out. I don't know what that number is but it is crucial before any judgement can be made. Corn ethanol sucks and doesn't really produce energy. Sugar yields 4 units of energy out for every one in. Oil once yielded 100 our for every 1 in but now is between 10-20 out for every 1 in. If cellulose to butane yielded 10 out for every 1 in it could very well be a great source of energy, if it yields 2 out for every 1 it won't b

          • Yes that's a big number (and only a 1/4 of the what the world uses as a whole)

            Considering that this 1/4 of the world's total is used by 5% of the world's population, it'd be a very good idea to do something about that, and to start looking for alternatives.

            • We (humans) are doing something about that. The rest of the world's usage is climbing in an attempt to match the U.S. :) I'm all for conservation and efficiency but in the end we just need more energy. When 2/3 of the world industrializes the transportation and electricity that come with it will require more energy.
      • So grass clippings and newspaper may not make a dent but since about 33% of all plant matter is made up of cellulose I don't think getting the cellulose would be a problem.

        Typically this research focuses on creating bio-fuel from switchgrass [] which grows natively in most of the United States.

    • TFA mentions 323 million tons of cellulotic material a year that can potentially be used. No indication on butanol conversion rates or how a liter of butanol compares to a liter of gasoline - so it's hard to really make a comparison.

      Anyway assume you use all those 323 million tons, assume a 20% conversion rate, could yield 65 million tons of butanol. Or 180 thousand tons a day. That's almost 50 million gallons a day. So that could put a serious dent in the gasoline use.

      Of course it's not a 100% replacemen

    • I haven't bought a newspaper in probably six years.

      No purchase necessary, they toss honking rolls of advertisements on my driveway with metronomic regularity. Probably make a fortune if I could get them to toss it in a vat of yeast instead.

  • by tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @07:51PM (#37259782)
    Using bacteria (or any other process) to rearrange the chemical bonds of a substance doesn't come free. It consumes energy.

    From an environmental point of view, they should simply send the newspapers to coal power plants and burn them along with the coal. Those power plants have conversion rates of heat to electricity on the order of 40%, instead of about 25% that internal combustion engines of cars have. But of course, this is not about the environment, or even CO2.

    Instead there seems to be some despair about the cheap oil reserves slipping out of US control, especially after the failure of the Iraq war to secure US supplies. Otherwise nobody would pursue such follies as butanol from paper scraps or ethanol from corn. All this is made worse by the inability of US politicians to comprehend that it is perfectly possible to have a standard of living superior to that of the US while using just about half the amount of energy per capita.

    Sure, it would be the end of the American way of life as the world knew it - but that one is over anyway. These days resources have to be shared with the rest of the world. That is, the other 6 billion people outside of the OECD. And that rest of the world is growing [] with little signs of halting or even slowing down.
    • by GodfatherofSoul ( 174979 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @08:28PM (#37260134)

      Using bacteria (or any other process) to rearrange the chemical bonds of a substance doesn't come free. It consumes energy.

      You mean like photosynthesis?

      • by tp1024 ( 2409684 )
        Those bacteria don't use photosynthesis. They don't use any external source of energy, except for what they are feeding on - the newspapers. In photosynthesis a small part of the energy of the sunlight is used to rearrange chemical bonds in a way that allows the plant to more easily release energy from them in a way that is useful for the processes in the plant. The bacteria wouldn't waste all that effort and energy, if it was already in a form useful for the bacteria.

        Old paper, however, is already in a f
    • It consumes energy.

      It's decomposition that we're talking about here. Presumably, the materials are waste, so the only extra energy is probably small processing costs and transportation.

      . . .such follies as butanol from paper scraps or ethanol from corn.

      I see what you did there. Would you care to justify the comparison? I think that there are valid reasons to refer to the production of corn ethanol as folly, but I don't see the same case for the other.

      . . .but that one is over anyway.

      And here, we have the root of the matter. You don't like the lifestyle enjoyed in the US. Fine. Pardon if other people would like to conti

      • by tp1024 ( 2409684 )
        If, for a change, you could continue your lifestyle without killing people in Asia, Afrika and central America that would be much appreciated.

        Truly yours,

        The Rest of the World.(TM)
    • The problem is that powerplant is not next to my house. That electric is produced at 3Â to 9Â /kwhr less than 200 miles away, yet costs 25Â /kwhr at my house. The tank of gas I bought last week, got from a port in Texas 1000 miles to my car, price went from $2 to $2.50 ( plus 50Â in taxes.) I don't know where those costs went, but who cares fuel is just 30% efficient, if electric is 12% efficient, before getting into a vehicle.

    • by Locutus ( 9039 )
      but that would mean using electric cars instead of business as usual and burning fuel inside an engine to propel the car. You are just a radical thinker and just want to change things. ;-)

  • wait... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @08:10PM (#37259964)
    aren't newspapers rarer than oil now?
    • by TexVex ( 669445 )

      aren't newspapers rarer than oil now?

      Eh, I've been hearing about potential "miracle bacteria" for decades now. To me this is just another load of over-hyped bullshit that we we won't hear about ever again, much like the crazy Thorium Car guy last month.

      But, might as well: TFA did indicate it could potentially convert any plant-based material, newspaper being but one example.

      Hey, why don't we turn this into a fantasy thread about how this could be good for marijuana legalization, 'cause you could harve

      • by PPH ( 736903 )

        'cause you could harvest the sweet sweet buds and throw the rest into the vat to make fuel?

        But stoners don't want to go anywhere. So the fuel would be useless.

    • Yes, but this research was invested in by big newspaper in order to create an artificial demand for newspaper. Pretty soon you'll see newspaper ads being ran that point out you can stuff newspaper in your gas tank to fuel your car at a cost cheaper than shoving oil into it.

  • Right? We powered locomotion by burning wood long before we powered it by burning oil.
  • It will use almost ANY plant matter. Farming waste such as corn stalks or grass clippings and fallen leaves from your lawn for example. Pretty much any place that can grow seasonal plants such as grasses can now be a source for fuel.

  • I'm picturing massive fires in landfills nationwide.

  • by b4thyme ( 1120461 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @08:58PM (#37260340)
    A larger component percentage of the fiber in newsprint is hemi-cellulose and lignin than cellulose. Newsprint is generally made in a mechanical process rather than a chemical process so you are going to be left with all the turpentine and tall oil in the pulp as well. Are you going to just burn the rest? It seems awfully wasteful given how expensive your process is going to be. It is generally accepted that when it comes to newsprint, it is better to burn it than to recycle it as the fuel expended in the collection of it and energy and chemicals expended to de-ink it outweigh the value of the crappy chewed up fiber you get from recovering it. I am a process engineer in a paper mill
  • by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2011 @09:23PM (#37260498) Journal

    I don't believe this will ever actually get fuel to the pump in any reasonable quantity, but if someone ever invents a roomba powered by dog hair, I'm definitely in line for that.

    But I suspect it'd weigh 800 pounds and you'd have to feed three medium-sized dogs to it to get your living room vacuumed.

    • by knarf ( 34928 )

      A Roomba powered by dog hair might be hard, but it would be easy to make one powered by dog(s). In more than one way... Think Slug^H^H^H^HDogBot [] for the scary version (which *really* gets rid of the dog hair problem) or Cynosphere [] for a less terminal variety.

  • and what about the cost? When I can get 5800000 Btu out of a barrel of it for 85 bucks or so, do let me know.

"Yeah, but you're taking the universe out of context."