The future of fuel has gone to sh*%.

Everybody poops, including panda bears. (See about 0:35 in the above video for evidence.) But panda poop could turn out to be quite a bit more important than your average animal excrement. That's because scientists are "mining" it for bacteria that could help make better biofuel.

The key problem with biofuel today is that the stuff that's actually economical to produce — i.e., corn ethanol — isn't really that great for the environment. Corn farming uses a lot of fertilizer, water, and herbicide. Using corn that was previously grown for food to make fuel, instead, can lead to deforestation as people clear land to make up for the lost food farming. Some models of carbon dioxide emissions suggest that, by the time you factor in things like fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and the deforestation, a gallon of corn ethanol might not be any better for climate change than a gallon of gasoline. Not all the models agree on that. But even if corn ethanol produces fewer carbon emissions than gas, you still have to deal with the fact that growing nutrient-hungry corn on the same patch of ground over and over and over is really bad for local soil and water quality.

Cellulosic ethanol could be a much better alternative — particularly cellulosic ethanol made from native, perennial plants that don't require heavy inputs to thrive and actually improve the health of the land they're grown on. The problem: Converting those plants into fuel is, so far, a lot more expensive. Cellulose — the plant fiber that makes up things like stalks of bamboo and tall prairie grasses — is tough stuff and hard to break down.

That's where panda poop comes in. Pandas process tons of cellulose every day, right in their guts. Maybe the bacteria that work for them could work for us, too.

Read more about this research at Chemical and Engineering News

Discuss

8 Responses to “The future of fuel has gone to sh*%.”

  1. DisGuest says:

    Oh, now you’re just panda-ing to the green side. Are you trying to create a bear market? The oil companies call this a load of crap.

  2. The corn used for ethanol is made from “industrial corn” which is not edible unless highly processed (in fact if you tried to eat much unprocessed it would kill you as it contains poisonous compounds). Even animal feed using this corn needs to be highly processed to get to the substances used in processed feed. If you feed it to cattle unprocessed most of it passes thru undigested and causes the gut to have E Coli flourish. Also the actual portion of the corn used in ethanol is cellulose which is an otherwise commercially useless economically (if the collected the stalks and leaves they could produce ethanol as well but the equipment and handling for that is non-existent). I do agree that it requires a large amount of nitrogen injected as ammonia and it is has certainly damaged the land (the good black soil in central Illinois has been very visibly damaged in Illinois). Unfortunately due the industrial farm complex has dictated that a farm needs to grow only soybeans/corn in this area or face the loss of the remaining family farms.

  3. Dan Oelke says:

    While there is plenty of valid criticism about use of corn for ethanol, but please, please get your facts straight. 

    Commonly it is called “field corn” – not “industrial corn” and it won’t kill you to eat it.  It is pretty unpalatable for humans but not poisonous.  True – both humans and cattle have a hard time digesting whole kernels, but a little cooking or grinding can fix that.  For livestock the most common way of processing it is to break the shell of the kernel using a roller mill, or grind it up a bit more using a hammer mill.  Both are just mechanically breaking open the outer shell of the kernel – not exactly what I would cause “highly processed”.  For livestock it isn’t unusual to harvest the corn a bit wet and put it in a silo where it will ferment anaerobically before being fed (resulting in a silo full of “high moisture corn”).  I’m not sure if the fermentation results in better digestibility, but it does make it more palatable to cattle.

    Injecting anhydrous ammonia does not damage the land.  Yes – farming corn continuously on land can deplete the soil, but that is due more to erosion or not putting organic material back into the soil.  The ammonia itself doesn’t seem to appreciably damage the soil.

    The “industrial farm complex” doesn’t dictate what farmers plant in any given area.  Economics dictate that.  Farmers are businessmen and need to grow what is economically viable on their farm.  Currently commodity prices for corn and soybeans are such that farmers are a darn fool to not grow at least some for sale.

    • Well if you think you can beat the “industrial farm complex” be my guest but at least here in Illinois there is no place to sell anything but “industrial corn” (my name for what passes today as field corn). Ammonia injection mainly cause pollution in run off which is a big problem in our lakes streams and even most wells. If you are smart you don’t give it to kids as the nitrates are bad for them (folk I know that raise pedigreed show dogs are particularly careful about this as nitrates are very harmful to canines). Most of the corn planted these days is either waxy corn (definitely not edible but worth more which is what grows in our fields) or the GMO corn with built in pesticides (eat it at your peril) but these hybrids are very productive we get right at 200 bushels an acre on an average year. But neither of those hybrids can be used as animal feed. The high incidence of E Coli contamination of beef is from feeding corn (cows  evolved as grazing animals they did not eat corn until the last century) in fact there are chicken feeds derived from cow waste (and they even try to feed cows chicken waste as well as beef byproducts).

      There are specific hybrids of corn grown for uses like corn meal, flour and corn starch but it isn’t grown much in the Corn Belt there are also some heirloom varieties grown for human consumption as well. Besides all corn at the very least requires rendering with some chemical like lye or other basic substance (the Mexicans use wood ashes for this which they  added in  while grinding). During the early part of the “green revolution” in the 60′s there was a worldwide program that planted corn as a food crop in Asia and some Pacific islands to help alleviate 3rd world starvation. The “beneficiaries” of this western largess nearly all starved to death before someone pointed out that the corn needed to be treated with lye or wood ashes to allow any nutritional benefits. That was something the originators of maize figured out many many centuries ago.  Besides most of the hybrids of corn planted today in the US are very far from maize or even what we know as “sweet corn”. The corn grown today is very different from the field corn of my youth 50 years ago which could be used as food if processed properly.

      When corn prices got very low in the 70′s and 80′s the farmers did not eat corn but burned it in pellet type stoves modified to burn corn. The main  food product using this “industrial corn” we see today is high fructose corn syrup which is best avoided like the plague IMHO. I say all this as part owner of a small family farm that we managed to keep in the family for 130+ years but sometimes just barely. None of us farm so it is managed  by a group specializing in this area (you need around 600 – 800 acres or more to actually support a farm family in the Corn Belt these days and we only have around 130 acres left after roads etc.). I would love to see something else more Eco-friendly grown but I am unable to do it myself due to heath. The last few years have been fairly profitable but this year the drought maybe an issue but the current hybrid corn at least made some ears (hopefully it will at least break even). I would love to see the farm planted in hemp like during WWII or even a truck farm but that requires more personal involvement than we can do.

  4. Roman Berry says:

    Who says corn ethanol is economical to produce? It isn’t. That’s why we have subsidies. Wasteful subsidies. Corn ethanol as an ROEI of not much more than unity when all energy inputs that are required to produce it are accounted for. Some estimates say it can go as high as 1.4:1, but that’s still not economical. If our energy economy was based on “economical” energy sources with that kind of return, society would look nothing at all like it does today. That simply isn’t a sustainable return. Check this video (or read the transcript below it…or both) from Chris Martenson and you’ll see what I mean: Energy Budgeting

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