How elephants could solve the biofuel problem

 

A A A

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."

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before