Biofuels (fuels produced at least in part from organic materials) are a popular topic among those seeking a greener energy future. The idea of creating fuel from plants, animal byproducts and waste materials is fascinating and exciting, especially considering that the world's demand for oil is set to increase to 116 million barrels worldwide by 2030, a significant increase from the current 85 million currently demanded. This increase could seriously deplete the world's oil supply, which makes finding alternate sources more important than ever.
However, creating biofuels efficient enough for widespread use remains a challenge. Costliness is also a factor in their stymied growth. Currently, it costs more to convert lignocellulosic biomass into useable fuel than it is to do the same with crude oil.
Recently, however, scientists have identified an enzyme which may do wonders for both energy and cost efficiency of biofuels. The source? A fungi which grows in the guts of large animals like cows.
According to Michelle O’Malley, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, part of what her research team does, in their research into biofuels, is "...to get weird, unexpected microbes out of the environment." Her team's most recent discovery, the fungi A. robustus, certainly fits that description, as it has a unique structure which makes it ideal for producing industrial fuel.
It is the chemical reactions between enzymes which make biofuel usable. Normally, those enzymes are free-floating, and can take quite a while to break down a large amount of biomass. However, the structure of A. robustus is more rigid, like a scaffold. Enzymes can plug into this scaffold and accumulate, to break down biomass more quickly. O'Malley explains that this scaffold structure "kind of glues the enzymes together for maximum impact to break down the non-food parts of plants."
In most biofuels, several different enzymes must be mixed together, and their reactions are difficult to predict or control. As O'Malley explains, the enzymes in most biofuels typically "...run into each other randomly to create the necessary reactants." But, she continues, in A. robustus, things occur differently, “What’s different about the structures we’ve identified is that the enzymes are tethered, so the reactions and their products are moved along an assembly line, expanding their activity for maximum impact rather than happening by luck.”
If A. robustus were to become an important component in producing biofuels, one would imagine that it could be more cost effective than much of the less-productive biomass currently in use. Cows are abundant, and already used in a variety of industries. Their gut fungus could be harvested as a byproduct or possibly even grown in a lab, under the correct conditions.
It's easy to imagine how the discovery of A. robustus could lead to the production biofuels with more predictable reactions, whose efficiency could be measured and understood before they are put into use. Such changes are necessary if biofuels are to ever meet worldwide energy demands, and live up to their reputation as a great hope for a cleaner energy future.