Scientists consider ethanol sources beyond corn, and why termites may be the key breakthrough

Biofuels was one of the major topics that surfaced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week. Nobel laureate Steven Chu called the need for alternative fuels "very pressing" as the economics of powering autos with gas is four times as expensive as plug-in electricity. Experts say biofuels will have a major impact on the energy economy within the next decade as other technologies, such as nuclear fusion, are too far away from commercial uses.
Ethanol from corn does not appear to impress scientists, who say the production costs exceed the value of the fuel itself and could affect food supplies. Instead, cellulose ethanol is more exciting since its yield has the potential to be "2.5 times higher than sugar cane."

But since nature designed the cell walls of cellulose to discourage traditional distillation methods, scientists are also turning to nature to solve the problem. Apparently, termites have the ability to digest cellulose walls. Now scientists are studying the enzymes in the termite's digestive system to figure out better ways to turn wood cellulose into sugars. Scientists don't want to unleash an army of termites on wood piles or switchgrass; instead, learn how the enzymes work and develop a commercially viable synthetic process. Another possibility is breeding cellulosic plants that more amenable to ethanol production. Some say genetically modified plants could be available in 15 years.

[Source: Alan Boyle / MSNBC]

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