Nestled somewhere in the forests of northern Patagonia, amongst dramatic Andean peaks, alpine lakes, and fiery winds could very well be the answer to our dependency on fossil fuels.
Earlier this month, Gary Strobel, a professor from Montana State University, announced a fungus that lives inside trees naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel.
Hydrocarbons are chemical compounds that naturally occur in substances like crude oil, and are thought of as the basic building blocks for any type of fuel. And in recent times, as the search has expanded to find alternative fuels, the majority of attention has been placed on biofuels and ethanol.
Currently, nearly all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry “mill grain” process. Production plants ferment corn ears or sugar cane into alcohol, and though the process is relatively simple, it requires a lot of energy and wastes the vast majority of the raw material that went into it.
“Traditionally that’s been an energy-intensive process that also involves lots of chemicals,” said Andrew Groover, a plant geneticist at the U.S. Forest Service, about ethanol production in a recent article in Wired.
“So, one approach is to look for situations in nature where there are organisms that can break down wood as part of their natural lifestyle: wood rot, fungi, termites.”
Using plant cellulose like wood or plant stalks to make fuel is something scientists have dreamed about for generations because it is a much more environmentally friendly and efficient process. What’s so breakthrough about this fungus, Gliocladiun roseum, is that it not only breaks down cellulose, it also synthesizes the liquid fuel akin to diesel.
Unfortunately, scientists still need to learn more about the fungus, and the process of extracting fuel from it isn’t efficient enough yet to produce diesel on an industrial scale. That hasn’t managed to deflate Strobel, however, who is excited about the possibilities this finding could bring. He writes in his paper in this month’s edition of Microbiology, “The dramatic increase in global food prices spurs the need to sever the biofuel market from food production. An attractive carbon source is cellulose, the world’s most abundant natural organic compound.”
Cellulose which is readily digestible by fungi like G. roseum.