The search for an effective biofuel represents a major area of scientific research and energy company funding. In a new study, a simple microbe isolated from a forest may hold the golden key for a new generation of biofuels.
Biofuels are seen by many as the alternative to oil as an energy source for industry and the motor car. A biofuel is a type of fuel whose energy is derived from biological carbon fixation. The two most common types of biofuels in use today are ethanol and biodiesel. Scientists continue to search for the most efficient and cost effective types of biofuels.
Biofuels have the potential, unlike fossil fuels, to be clean, green and renewable.
One of the best options so far is to produce biofuels from cellulosic biomass (essentially plant material) using a combination of sugar-fermenting microbes and ionic liquid solvents. The problem with this process is that the ionic liquids, which are used to make cellulosic biomass more digestible for microbes, can also be toxic to them.
However, a research team from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), have developed a solution. The solution is a tropical rainforest microbe that can endure relatively high concentrations of an ionic liquid used to dissolve cellulosic biomass.
According to the Berkley Lab Institute, the micro-organism was found at the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. It is called Enterobacter lignolyticus (SCF1 strain). This microbe is capable of achieving high rates of biomass decomposition, and has a high a tolerance to osmotic pressures, including those associated with ionic liquids.
Methods for processing cellulosic biomass into biofuels involve several production steps in which the bulk of ionic liquids used to pre-treat biomass can be washed out before the microbes are added.
The research group, led by Blake Simmons and Michael Thelen, have written a research paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The outcome is that the scientists hope to engineer new fuel-producing microbes that can tolerate ionic liquid pre-treatments and possibly lead to a generation of efficient biofuels.