Could Cheaper, Cleaner Biofuel Replace Ethanol?

Montana State University research may have cracked the code on food-free biofuel. Instead of processing starch or sugar from edible crops, this new process harnesses the power of tiny symbiotic organisms that live inside plants, called endophytes, to break down plant waste into materials very similar to those found in diesel.

Microbiologist Gary Strobel enjoys searching for fossils in his free time. His day job sends him around the world, exploring jungles in search of different kinds of endophytes. His research led him to an unconventional theory on fossil fuels: that these tiny bacteria and fungi helped form the crude oil underneath our feet.

He put his theory to the test inside a device he calls the paleobiosphere. Strobel demonstrated that by simulating the conditions of an ancient forest, endophytes could break down plant material into hydrocarbons in a matter of weeks. Those hydrocarbons can be used to make a carbon-neutral, diesel-like fuel, strong enough, according to Strobel, to power his motorcycle and a friend’s lawn mower.

The next step is to produce larger quantities in a pilot plant. Right now it’s still in the lab phase, but Strobel and his team hope to continue ramping up the efficiency and scale to get this biofuel up and running.

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