There is currently a great desire worldwide to create fuels from plants (that are abundant and not eaten). For background on this topic, click here. This process is possible, but making the fuel is expensive, time consuming, and difficult. However, chemists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have done research to develop a new, highly improved method for procuring economical, more realistic biofuels.
The most crucial step in the biofuel production process (making fuel from plants such as corn stalks and switchgrass) is the break down of sugar polymers into monomers, which can then be made into fuel compounds. Plants contain energy, which they store in their carbon bonds. This energy can be converted to fuel if these bonds are broken. However, lignocellulose, which holds the plants together structurally, is difficult to break apart.
Finding a more efficient way to break down the sugars in plants would greatly lower the cost of biofuel production. Trichoderma reesei is a fungus that can “churn out enzymes that chew through molecules like complex sugars”. Thus, the fungus produces many enzymes that can help to procure fuel from plants. New research is being done to find which of these enzymes (called glycoside hydrolase) work most efficiently together and individually at different temperatures, pressures, and pH levels in an effort to reach maximum efficiency in the process. Chemist Aaron Wright said, “Identifying exactly which enzymes are doing most of the work you need done is crucial for making this an economical process.”
This procedure of tracking each enzyme through each stage of a complicated process would normally take months to complete with regular enzyme testing (perhaps like the testing we did in class, but much more complex!). However, Wright’s team created a chemical probe that allows intense testing to be accomplished in only a few days.
As the price and sources of gas are such common concerns today, I am curious to see if this experiment will come to fruition to produce an environmentally friendly, sustainable, efficient, and economical source of fuel.