Biofuel from an Unlikely Source

Biofuel from an Unlikely Source

In a word, the key to future biofuel development stinks.

Regardless how cute, fuzzy Biofuel from an Unlikely Sourceor photogenic, you’ve got to admit pandas don’t do much more than eat bamboo and sleep. Now scientists are saying another basic function these big bears perform may hold the key to future biofuel development—and in two words, it stinks.

National Geographic reported September 10, 2013 that scientists found panda feces—yes, panda poop—contain microbes that efficiently turn plant waste into biofuels. Better yet, the research may help protect pandas, which remain on the endangered species list.

To create biofuel now, biofuel processors must break down plant waste by cooking tough compositions such as stalks and stems with heat and/or acid to produce the simple sugars that ferment into ethanol. This process has many critics, including those concerned about global food supplies and prices, as well as those who believe such processes create more carbon emissions than petroleum.

Scientists studying alternatives to existing biofuel processes sought pandas due to their favorite food—bamboo—and recognition that adult panda must process 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Microbes found in the panda’s gut actually prove a very efficient way of breaking down plant waste and processing it to energy.

“We started out with the pandas because of their diet,” said Candace Williams, who originally developed the study several years ago while working on her Master's degree. “They are really unique animals in that they are physiologically like a carnivore, but they eat a herbivorous diet. If you're studying these microorganisms that allow the panda to use this cellulose in bamboo for nutrition, you can see how they might be useful for investigating one of the main problems for biofuels—breaking down those lignocellulosic materials to produce sugars.”

Pandas also have short digestive tracts for such large animals, and just a single stomach chamber, Williams added. (Cows, in comparison, use four different stomach regions to gradually remove the energy from grass.) “This means their bacteria have to be even more potent at breaking down the material quickly,” she said, “making them very efficient and perhaps even more promising for biofuel production.”

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