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Bug Guts May Hold Key to Cheaper Ethanol Production

February 19, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO --- Researchers are studying insects to find ways to produce alternative fuels more efficiently and less expensively. According to a MSNBC report, microbes inside the termite's digestive system are shedding light on ways to make biofuels more effectively. Over the next decade, alternative fuel research is expected to draw billions of dollars. Development of alternative fuels was a major topic at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week. The most promising technologies are varied, ranging from biofuels to fuel cells. "Currently, transportation fuel is the most valuable form of energy we have," Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory told MSNBC. "The economics is such that powering automobiles with gasoline is now four times as expensive as powering them with plug-in electricity." In one study, Illinois scientists converted miscanthus grass into ethanol at a rate of 2,500 gallons per acre, reported Christopher Somerville, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University. Chu said that if that process could be commercialized, that yield would be 2.5 times higher than sugar cane --- the crop used in Brazil's successful ethanol industry. Cellulose-based ethanol could theoretically replace at least one-third of gasoline consumed in the U.S. At present, though, processes for converting cellulose into ethanol are still costly and inefficient. That's where the study of termite digestion comes into play. The cell walls of cellulose are made to discourage digestion by insects. But those cell walls haven't thwarted those pesky termites.
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