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Future Fuel

Joel Schor. "The Evolution and Development of Biotechnology: A Revolutionary Force in American Agriculture." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 1994.


According to the Volkswagen Corporation, automobile fuels by the year 2000 are likely to consist of gasoline, methanol from coal, diesel oil, and liquefied petroleum gas, with only a small percentage of ethanol derived from biomass. "Gasohol," used widely during the energy crisis of the 1970s in the United States, is a blend of 10 percent ethanol with 90 percent gasoline. The alcohol production process involves three steps: reduction of the material to water-soluble sugars, fermentation to produce alcohol, and distillation by boiling to separate the alcohol from the water.

Considerable applied science and social science research went into alcohol development as an alternative source of energy. Brazil and other countries actually became committed to full-scale production, with mixed results. For a number of reasons, the energy crisis abated by the 1980s, and the avenue of alternative fuels was de-emphasized in the U.S. Nevertheless, certain discoveries were made. Alcon Biotechnology, a joint venture between John Brown Engineers and Allied Breweries, developed a continuous-fermentation process that could be housed in a standard shipping container. The process appealed to and gained approval in countries such as the Philippines, which had been trying to produce more fuel alcohol to offset growing oil import bills. Although significant sales of the new process did not materialize, the process may revive if oil prices rise significantly.

Fermented fuel from biomass has made headway in a few parts of the world, and other processes, such as production from waste products, are being investigated by biotechnology companies. Biomechanics, Inc., for example, was one of the first companies to become involved in anerobic waste treatment technology. Anaerobic digestion of wastes takes place in the absence of air and results in the conversion of organic matter, by bacterial action, into a useful mixture of methane and carbon dioxide. In this process, over 93 percent of the effluent is converted into gas, leaving 3 percent as sludge, which is more efficient than the comparable biomass conversion into alcohol.

The first commercial bioenergy plant was built in Ashford, Kent, England, by RHM, and was followed by a second facility in Bordeaux, France. As part of a continuing development program, five mobile plants have been sited at industrial locations in the United Kingdom. They were used to treat effluents from dairy, cider, pectin, confectionary, yeast, brewing, distilling, and chemical plants. In Italy, the process was used to treat effluents from cheese and ham processing, and in Spain, in slaughterhouse operations. Savings on water charges for effluent treatment and energy savings derived from use of the methane show that a bioenergy plant can make a financial profit not realized through aerobic treatment, as well as satisfy statutory requirements for disposal of waste.

In the U.S., firms like BioTechnica have been examining methods in which landfill waste-disposal sites can be converted into "bioreactors" for methane production. Many landfills take in 5,000 tons of refuse every day. One percent of the national energy need could be satisfied by this type of process. The new concept envisions designing the landfill site from scratch as a giant bioreactor, with gas production as the basic objective. Although the overall energy contribution is likely to be small, the magnitude of the national requirement makes the technology important.

Another viable route for energy production appears to be in developing enzymes, like cellulase, which break down cellulose. An estimated billion tons of cellulose that could be converted into chemical energy goes to waste in the U.S. each year. The gene that codes for cellulase has been isolated by scientists at Cornell University and grown in large quantities by E. coli. Although still in the development stages, the finding shows how rDNA technology can eventually transform biofuel production.

The energy crisis of the 1970s produced many new ideas about energy generation, one example being photobiological generation, the production of hydrogen by whole microorganisms. Before support for this approach was reduced by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, a number of photosynthetic bacteria, nonphotosynthetic bacteria, cyanobacteria, and green, red, and brown algae were discovered. These organisms produced the enzyme hydrogenase, which is necessary to make hydrogen. Professor David Hall of King's College, London, believes that such a system could supply the world's current energy needs using 0.5 million square kilometers (0.1 percent of the earth's surface, an area about the size of France). If fossil fuel reserves become depleted, these energy alternatives may become future realities. Whether the farmer or rural areas will benefit by this possibility depends on the methods actually employed and their location.


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