How elephants could solve the biofuel problem

 

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When it comes to weaning the world's motorists off their addiction to fossil fuel, few would have bet on finding part of the solution in the pungent depths of elephant droppings and a Swiss compost heap.

A biochemical cocktail based on enzymes and micro-organisms found in elephant faeces and in rotting vegetable matter has the potential to revolutionise biofuel production by making it possible to mass-produce eco-friendly gasoline for the first time without relying on food crops, say the scientists.

A Dutch technology giant, DSM, has signed deals to introduce its new fermenting technique in test plants across Europe and the US, meaning ethanol, which currently makes up 4 per cent of all petrol in Britain, derived from crop waste and wood chips, could be available at the pump by 2015.

Research shows the new technology, along with other second generation or "2G" biofuels, could produce up to 90 billion litres of bio-ethanol in Europe by 2020 and displace more than 60 per cent of conventional petrol use as well as reducing reliance on crops such as maize, which has been blamed for fuelling the global food crisis.

But scientists warn there is a lack of political will across Europe to provide the support and subsidy for large-scale production. Environmentalists also question whether the hundreds of millions of tonnes of "bio-mass" required can be produced without encroaching on land used for food production.

But researchers believe that after decades of false dawns for the biofuels industry as it seeks to produce products which can compete on grounds of price and energy content with fossil fuels, they are on the cusp of a commercially viable method of production that converts vegetable matter previously considered to be unusable waste into ethanol, which must form 10 per cent of all road transport fuel by 2020 in Europe.

Inspiration for one half of the technique, which is being tested in demonstration-scale refineries due to come on line in 2014, came from analysis of mechanisms in the intestines of elephants which allow them to digest not only "ordinary" sugars such as glucose, but other sugars which normally remain locked up in the cellulose structure of plant cells. American researchers have also found bacteria in the droppings of bamboo-chomping pandas which could be similarly effective in biofuel production.

When the elephant enzymes were combined with another enzyme found in an analysis of a compost heap in Switzerland, tests showed the resulting cocktail could convert 90 per cent of bio-mass, such as maize stalks or wheat straw, into ethanol – about double the rate until now.

One analysis calculated that widespread take-up of 2G biofuel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by more than 40 per cent by 2020. Volkert Claassen, DSM's head of strategy in biotechnology, said: "From the technology point of view, we are very confident that this will work. But we are at the point where we need to take this to a very different level ... If you want to make these kinds of tremendous changes in the world, then you need the right political environment."

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