Cows 'could be renewable fuel key'

A cow's stomach could hold the key to creating more environmentally friendly versions of petrol and diesel, according to scientists.

Researchers are investigating how enzymes found in the stomachs of cattle and other ruminants, animals which "chew cud", could be used on an industrial scale to break down the tough structures of plant and tree matter.

The discovery and application of the enzymes could help scientists release untapped energy in waste plant and tree products in order to make renewable fuel.

The study is being carried out by life sciences company Ingenza with Professor John Wallace from the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen and ARK-Genomics at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute.

Humans cannot digest the tough material which makes up plants and trees but Ingenza and Professor Wallace say they expect to identify the enzymes in ruminants which allow for the breakdown of these structures.

The scientists say the resulting chemical reactions can be used to create sustainable alternatives to petrochemical-derived products such as fuel, commodity chemicals and fine chemicals.

Dr Ian Fotheringham, president of Ingenza, said: "People have been trying to unlock the energy in plant and tree matter for years but our approach recognises how nature has already successfully done it.

"If we can identify novel enzymes that allow ruminants to break down these tough structures, and then replicate them on a large scale, the possibilities for more sustainable and renewable industrial practices are enormous.

"Society is starting to look towards how greener practices can contribute to economic growth and more sustainable living in a meaningful way. This project could be a real step towards that."

On August 4, Professor Wallace will give a presentation on the science behind the idea at a technology event in Edinburgh organised by the Scottish Agricultural College, which will bring together the best of Scottish research, technology and collaboration projects.

If the research is successful Ingenza will mass produce the enzymes for industrial use.

Dr David Telford, of the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network, said: "There's an enormous amount of outstanding research and technology coming out of Scotland at the moment. And events like this are absolutely crucial in making sure people know what's being done and are able to benefit from it.

"The sharing of ideas and new discoveries across research facilities and commercial organisations is providing an additional boost to innovation in Scotland.

"Agriculture is an important part of the Scottish economy, and the knock-on effects of what is being done here will have positive benefits for other industry sectors too."