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Researchers postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar (center), undergraduate student Hailee Rask (left), and Professor David Mullin (right) cook up some butanol using their special bacteria.  (Source: Paula Burch-Celentano / Tulane University)

Clostridium bacteria, shown here in a gorgeous electron micrograph, aren't always friendly, causing tetanus, food poisoning, and botulism.  (Source: Vaccine News Daily)

Pure butanol can be used in regular engines without damaging them, unlike ethanol. It's also more energy-dense than ethanol.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bacteria digests cellulose to make motor friendly butanol

Those piles of junk advertising fliers and lawn waste could soon be put to good use.  Researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana have discovered [press release] a beneficial new bacteria that can digest plant-derived waste and turn it into a superior biofuel.

The microbe, named TU-103 in honor of the university, was discovered by a Tulane team lead by cell and molecular biology professor David Mullin.  They quite literally dug the bacteria out of excrement; it was discovered from a comprehensive analysis of the hordes of microbes found in the dung of grass-eating animals of New Orleans' Audubon Zoo.

The selected bacteria, a strand of Clostridium, expressed a cellulase capable of breaking down the sturdy sugar polymer that gives plants much of their rigid support.  Exposed to a stew of ground newspapers -- primarily composed of cellulose fibers -- and water, the bacterium was spotted asexually reproducing and producing 
butanol -- a four-carbon alcohol.

Many species of Clostridium are less than friendly causing diseases like botulism and tetanus.  However, this newly discovered species uses its microbial powers for good.

The researchers admit that the new strain is not alone in its ability to produce butanol -- strains of 
E. coli, Clostridium, and even yeast have been genetically engineered to produce it as well.  However, the species is unique in that it is the first Clostridium species that appears to naturally have the ability to "eat" cellulose and "poop" butanol.

Researchers are still trying to compare their results against the other butanol producers, to see how their non-GMO stacks up to the competition.  But in a scene straight out Gattaca, the researchers believe their natural variety may out-perform the purely man-made constructs in the long run.

States Professor Mullin in an MSNBC 
interview, "This stuff has been worked out by natural selection, by nature, not the human mind. [We are] starting with an organism that already does something really efficiently; we don't have to pull in genes from other bacteria and figure out how to get them expressed."

However, the professor admits that the bacteria may receive a bit of genetic enhancement of its own in the near future.  His team is working on identifying the genes responsible for "turning on" the stretch of genes that code for the oxygen-dependent butanol-producing enzyme.  If they can boost expression of the protein, they could take TU-103's already natural-selection-tuned reaction to the next level.

Professor Mullin argues that butanol is a superior fuel to ethanol -- the current most widely produced biofuel -- as butanol can be used in standard gasoline engines.  He comments, "If you drain the gasoline out of your gas tank and replace it with butanol, you can start your engine. If you add ethanol to your fuel tank, no matter how many times you turn the key, it would never turn over; it doesn't have enough energy to run your engine."

Indeed automakers and 
repair shops have claim to have witnessed proof that ethanol is damaging engines.  Of course, despite numerous customer testimonials in support of that hypothesis, lawmakers refuse to believe that ethanol could harm the engine, claiming to have superior knowledge of the issue.  But butanol could lay the issue to rest as it's never been implicated in engine damage in its limited current use.

Tulane University also enjoys a fortunate location for riding the butanol revolution.  In addition to local communities' paper waste, it also has access to bugass -- a cellulose-rich waste byproduct produced when Louisiana's sugar cane crop is juiced.  Professor Mullin says he's son going to pull out a can of bugass and let the biofuel bugs munch on it.

About the only thing that will draw the ire of some is the fact that the researchers have a patent pending 
on fermentation process.  In a sense the team is "patenting" the work of a creature they found in nature.  That said, that creature could make a huge difference in the world's energy needs.

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Ethanol energy content
By Bill_T on 8/26/2011 3:07:05 PM , Rating: 1
If you add ethanol to your fuel tank, no matter how many times you turn the key, it would never turn over; it doesn't have enough energy to run your engine.

.... this is Bull . Indy series cars use 100% ethanol and get along fine. Like so many statements re ethanol seen in general press/tv this statement is 180 degrees from the truth. 100% Ethanol, in COLD climates, will have start up problems but since everybody is using 10% ethanol, and a few are using 85% ethanol this is not a problem. When blended with a little gasoline cold start issue goes away.

When an engine is optimized to make use of ethanol's high octane (115) vs gasoline's 92-95 (high test), like with turbo-charging to induce high compression combustion, the engine produces more power with the ethanol than it can with gasoline.

Google: "Ethanol Boosting Systems" to read about an engine designed by three MIT scientists that uses direct injection and turbo-charging to take full advantage of ethanol's high octane. The engine gets 30% better fuel efficiency than the typical internal combustion engine on gasoline. What's the cost of this engine? about $1,000 to $1,500 - or about one fourth the additional cost for a hybrid car.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By Kurz on 8/26/2011 4:24:19 PM , Rating: 2
Its about the compression and Knocking... Look at the Skyactiv engine from Mazda. Higher compression (14:1) while running on 87.

The only reason ethanol is better is it can take higher compression than gasoline. Though with stendy advances Gasoline is catching up.

Ethanol from the USA is a POS. Corn Ethanol is horrible on so many levels. Brazil is one of the few places that its actually doing alright in producing Ethanol.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By chick0n on 8/27/2011 8:18:27 PM , Rating: 2
except that their cars last no longer than 5 years. Cuz stuff starts breaking left & right in just as little as 2 years. Thanks to Ethanol.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By Kakao on 8/29/2011 7:06:15 AM , Rating: 3
I live in Brazil and they last much more than that. Yes they break for many reasons as all cars. Ethanol was a problem 35 years ago when we started using it. Nowadays there is no difference. The engines and all the parts that come in contact with the ethanol are built to resist it. Today almost all produced cars are made to take either ethanol or gasoline in any proportion and they will last as long as a gasoline only car.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By LordanSS on 8/29/2011 3:48:38 PM , Rating: 3
I second Kakao's comment. The reason cars break down here is not because of Ethanol (our engines and parts have been enhanced and modified to run ethanol for a while now, it's not an issue).

The problem is the absurdly poor condition of our roads and streets, and the fact the majority of people who own cars here don't do proper maintenance to keep them running. Over half the cars roaming the streets are "illegal", most of them because of not paying their taxes and performing the yearly, mandatory, car inspections at a local "DMV" (similar).

If you don't maintain your car (engine checkups every 10000km, oil changes and suspension/frame checks because of our road conditions), yeah it's not gonna last. But those that do it like they should, they will last a very long time.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By kb9fcc on 8/26/2011 4:54:59 PM , Rating: 5
Actually, until recently, Indy cars used methanol. It wasn't until 2007 that the league started using "100% Fuel Grade Ethanol" which is actually a 98%/2% blend of ethanol and gasoline. Also, Indy engines are designed to only last 1200 miles before needing to be rebuilt. So they really don't care if ethanol slowly destroys the engine.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By Solandri on 8/26/2011 5:25:07 PM , Rating: 5
When an engine is optimized to make use of ethanol's high octane (115) vs gasoline's 92-95 (high test), like with turbo-charging to induce high compression combustion, the engine produces more power with the ethanol than it can with gasoline.

That's impossible. Gasoline has an energy density of 46 MJ/kg, and 34 MJ/liter. Ethanol only has an energy density of 30 MJ/kg and 24 MJ/liter. Gasoline has roughly 50% more energy than ethanol for the same amount of fuel.

What higher compression ratio gives you is higher efficiency. A greater percentage of the energy in ethanol fuel gets converted into useful work than with gasoline. But that improvement is nowhere near enough to overcome the huge energy density advantage gasoline has. So your mileage (whether in miles per gallon or miles per kg) will be worse in an ethanol fueled vehicle, all other things being equal.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By Jim Vanus on 8/27/2011 10:52:46 AM , Rating: 2
Good point!

Many factors must be considered when evaluating fuels:
- Fuel energy density
- Engine efficiency
- Engine cost
- Net energy gain (the total amount of energy input into the fuel manufacturing process compared to the energy released)
- Quantity of input material (such as sawgrass) per unit of fuel produced (How many pounds of sawgrass are required to produce one gallon of ethanol?)
- Quantity and kind of hazardous waste produced in manufacturing the fuel

It's hard to get straight answers on some of these due to politics and vested interests.

Although the collection and refinery costs for petroleum-based fuels may seem high, no biomass is required and energy density is relatively high. Gasoline will be hard to kick!

RE: Ethanol energy content
By jtemplin on 8/27/2011 2:43:51 PM , Rating: 2
Its not impossible at all. You are both right. You get more power produced, but you don't get the same mileage (lower) as you would with conventional gas. Higher compression/more boost will always make more power, all things equal.

Lotta people could care less about the ethanol mileage reduction, if it nets their turbo car another 50 hp or something.

RE: Ethanol energy content
By chick0n on 8/27/2011 8:38:48 PM , Rating: 2
try to tell that (mpg part) to the grandma next door ... she will freak out. lol

RE: Ethanol energy content
By MadMan007 on 8/27/2011 9:40:14 PM , Rating: 3
Cool, when I drive my Indy car to work I will be sure to remember this!

RE: Ethanol energy content
By FITCamaro on 8/29/2011 8:02:15 AM , Rating: 3
Pretty much.

Trying to compare a racing engine to one that has to last 200,000+ miles is not even remotely possible.

This should read
By Iaiken on 8/26/2011 2:09:21 PM , Rating: 2
They could take TU-103's already natural-selection-tuned reaction to the next level... and patent it.


RE: This should read
By billshut on 8/27/2011 7:11:32 AM , Rating: 2
Well, that....and if these geeks were really thinking about it, wouldn't they have named this bacteria TU-14N3, after their university? ;)

RE: This should read
By drycrust3 on 8/28/2011 12:26:51 PM , Rating: 2
They are patenting the process that includes use of the bacteria. They are of the opinion that you can't patent a naturally occurring bacteria.

RE: This should read
By nocturne_81 on 8/28/2011 2:10:42 PM , Rating: 2
That would be like a drug company patenting a disease like hepatitis itself, so it can claim the right to any possible treatment... Oh wait...

RE: This should read
By rbuszka on 8/29/2011 1:29:54 PM , Rating: 2
If the use of a naturally-occurring bacterium to produce biofuel is patentable (neglecting any necessary pre-processing, or any subsequent processing steps to make the fermented mash usable), any farmer with grass-eating livestock found to have this bacterium in its excrement could be found to be infringing on the patent, simply because the bacterium would be doing what it naturally does when it produces the desired product. Monsanto should be all over this one with their lobbyists before too long.

One problem with the logic...
By MrBlastman on 8/26/2011 3:06:41 PM , Rating: 2
It is neat to take bacteria and poop out butenol from stuff like newspapers. However, the way I see society progressing, I see us moving _away_ from plant-based products and materials for things such as paper, documents, etc.

Sure, we aren't a paperless society now, but, with time, we will be producing less and less of these plant-based products that this technology relies on. I already see the need to sign receipts for example, being replaced in retail with electronic signature pads. This is only a start. The solution to this, if we became reliant on it, would be to cut down more trees, throw old houses into it, etc.

I think algae-based fuels will be superior in every way as long as we keep using liquid fuels. They'll help clean up the CO2 in the atmosphere--well, it will more than likely equalize. CO2 in will be similar to CO2 out from combustion (not quite, as some of the carbon will be deposited in the engine, pipes etc.).

RE: One problem with the logic...
By Solandri on 8/26/2011 5:32:47 PM , Rating: 3
It is neat to take bacteria and poop out butenol from stuff like newspapers. However, the way I see society progressing, I see us moving _away_ from plant-based products and materials for things such as paper, documents, etc.

The energy-containing constituent in paper is cellulose. Any process which can convert paper into alcohol fuel can convert wood into alcohol fuel. The latter just might need a little extra mulching to speed up the process.

I think algae-based fuels will be superior in every way as long as we keep using liquid fuels.

Algae-based fuels are pretty much identical to this. In one case you're using algae to use energy from sunlight to assemble sugar/cellulose molecules. In the other case you're using regular plants to harvest energy from sunlight to assemble sugar/cellulose molecules. You then ferment those molecules into alcohols.

RE: One problem with the logic...
By Murloc on 8/27/2011 8:23:44 AM , Rating: 2
you still have wood.

Everywhere in europe forests are expanding.
In my country it's happening too, because the mountain grass areas are getting lost to forest because herders don't take their animals up there anymore, and less and less people live on the mountains.
It's an untapped renewable resource that could contribute to our energetic indipendence.

RE: One problem with the logic...
By FITCamaro on 8/29/2011 8:00:53 AM , Rating: 1
Grass clippings will always be around though. ;)

But yes I think algae based bio-diesel is a great idea as well.

Butanol's octane
By Bill_T on 8/26/2011 3:14:33 PM , Rating: 2
While Butanol has a higher energy density than ethanol, ethanol has higher octane. This means with ethanol you can use turbo-charging to get more power out of a given size engine - which you cannot do with butanol. Being able to use turbo-charging to get more power out of a given size engine is important as it makes it possible to get better mpg with ethanol than you can with gasoline...or butanol.

As far as 'damaging engines', Flex Fuel vehicles have engines which operate on 85% ethanol. It costs all of about $500 to equip the engine to handle the 85% alcohol blend. Hardly a 'deal breaker'.

RE: Butanol's octane
By BikeDude on 8/29/2011 8:34:17 AM , Rating: 2
But do you have any examples of engines that achieve better mpg?

I drive what I believe to be Saab's second generation E85 engine (I love the smell of alcohol when starting the engine in the middle of the winter :) ). They have downplayed the increase in bhp and given it a more economy-friendly tuning, but there is still noticably better mileage from gasoline.

Kjell ac Bergström, who used to head up GM Powertrain Europe said a few years ago that he expected E85 and diesel engines to approach eachother in this respect. He stated that emission standards would dictate more efficient particle filters, which in turn would hamper diesel engines' fuel economy, while improvements in E85 technology would help those engines become more economical. (exhaust from E85 engines is already extremely friendly to the environment)

I have not so far heard of any substantial developments either way and would love to learn more.

Jason, check your grammar
By Dorkyman on 8/26/2011 3:15:11 PM , Rating: 2
I enjoy your writing, but you might want to check up on the proper use of the apostrophe.

"Doctor's" never means "more than one doctor."

It could mean one of two things:

(1) The apostrophe replaces missing letters, such as "The doctor's in"--The doctor is in.

(2) The apostrophe connotes a possessive, such as "The doctor's lab coat"--the lab coat belongs to the doctor.

Nothing really new here...
By EthanolResearch on 8/26/2011 3:21:34 PM , Rating: 2
Clostridia are known to degrade cellulose and produce butanol. The writer is not apparently knowledgeable in the field, and there are so many typos and mistakes in the article that it has no credibility.

As far as running engines on ethanol, all Indy car and Formula 1 cars run on 100% ethanol.

It's a Shame...
By mmatis on 8/26/2011 3:48:20 PM , Rating: 2
they chose to research something that could make fuel out of newspapers. With the massive success newspapers have been having lately, there won't be anything for these critters to eat!

By nocturne_81 on 8/27/2011 2:04:53 AM , Rating: 2
There's so many incredibly general comments being made over gasoline vs ethanol, I figured I'd lay out the basics of the internal combustion engine, and given any basic understanding of such you can easily come to the truth(es) on your own.

First of all, most ICE's operate under the basic concept of a piston and combustion 'chamber'.. the piston goes down as the intake valve opens, sucking in the fuel/air mixture; the valve closes as the piston travels back upwards, compressing the mixture; then an ignition source (purely by compression alone in the case of diesel) causes the compressed mixture to combust (preferably right at the height of the piston's journey), pushing the piston downwards to provide power and keep the cycle going. I know, absolute basics... but by many of the comments it seems most have forgotten (or at least have no understanding).

Now, octane.. octane is an 'inverse' measurement of volatility, meaning that the higher the octane, the more resistant the fuel is to combusting under pressure and heat. The concept is that a typical engine doesn't need that much force, so your typical car engine with a 9-9.5:1 compression ratio requires a more volatile fuel (lower octane) than a performance engine at around 10.5-12:1, which necessitates a higher octane to avoid the fuel mixture combusting under chamber heat and pressure alone before the piston reaches the height of it's cycle, which would force pressure backwards on a powertrain trying to push forwards (ie. engine 'knocking' or 'pinging').

Now, ethanol vs gasoline. Sure, an engine could run pure alcohol, provided it was designed for it to begin with (14:1 compression typically). The arguments over wear and tear, though, are in a sense correct (though as explained, misguided). (Pure) ethanol is 'dry', evaporating quickly with no residue; while modern gasoline is a mixture of many petroleum distillates (in addition to many extra lubricants, stabilizers, detergents, and other additives), ranging from volatile butanol to 'pure' liquified gasoline to higher octane distillates like xylene, and yes.. even ethanol. By their nature, fuels with higher mixes of ethanol will [i]not[/i] damage fuel injectors (kerosene and ethanol, if not xylene, are typically the primary ingredients of octane boosters and fuel system cleaner treatments); though by not being an oil derivative, it [i]will[/i] cause increased wear and tear on mechanical parts; namely, your piston rings and cylinder walls (the only parts under any friction that the fuel mixture comes in contact with).

As for the politics and concerns over EPA gas regulations... there's nothing to worry about. For those running your typical 'daily-driver' cars, the newer gas mixtures with higher ethanol contents will cause no real discernible change in performance, efficiency, or reliability. Octane ratings are there for a reason, and other additives to the gasoline mixtures will compensate for the slightly reduced viscosity (not to mention any modern vehicle's ECM can easily adjust timing parameters to compensate for gas variances). As for performance engines.. if you're serious enough, you should be competent enough to blueprint out a good setup and be able to adjust timing, mixtures, etc.. after all, that's kind of the whole point..

Curious fact, though... first internal combustion engine, fuel source was a hydrogen/oxygen mixture derived via the electrolysis of water -- years before gas was invented. Any rational person with a rudimentary understanding of chemistry can obviously tell that hydrogen will definitely be the obvious choice for fuel in the future, though much of the design we've been evolving for the last century will have to be completely rethought...

By talikarni on 8/29/2011 11:41:49 AM , Rating: 2
Must be a slow news day, this "alcohol spewing" bacteria has been studied for this exact purpose since the 70s fuel scare.

Big oil still won't allow it to be used until they have a way to mass produce it and charge us $5/gal for it... and the government won't allow it because they enjoy wasting our money on corn subsidies.

*sigh* It will take a civil war before things change here in the US.

Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By Shinobisan on 8/26/11, Rating: -1
RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By 91TTZ on 8/26/2011 3:05:14 PM , Rating: 2
He's right that ethanol harms many engines built in the last 20-25 years. Look at the forums of many older cars- you'll find that once they switched to ethanol many injectors started failing.

RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By Smartless on 8/26/2011 3:50:57 PM , Rating: 2
True however its mostly because alcohol is a polar molecule like water and will corrode rubber, magnesium, etc... In his defense, dedicated ethanol cars have promise of competing with gasoline but his statement;
You can harvest more energy from Ethanol than you will ever be able to from gasoline.
can be considered an over-simplification or an out-right lie as well. It's true that through turbo-charging and compression you can get much more thermal efficiency but energy is energy, and ethanol still has 34% less energy than gasoline. I tried looking up how effective turbo-charging is in getting the mileage up but alas I have to go back to work. All in all, I've always thought of ethanol as a good stop-gap but we need to pursue true game-changers like fuel cells or something.

RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By Shinobisan on 8/26/2011 4:46:34 PM , Rating: 2
... let me stick up for my statements here.

Gasoline engines typically have a compression ration of 12.5 to 1 (12.5:1). You can build an E85 engine with a compression ratio of 18:1. That is a HUGE difference in the amount of power you can harness from the fuel. You see, I wasn't merely talking about turbo-charging an engine (although that is a quick way to make an ethanol efficient variable compression motor), I was talking about a NEW engine with much higher base compression.

The automotive tech company "Ricardo" has developed what they call an "Ethanol Boosted Direct Injection" engine (or EBDI) that uses a V6 configuration to develop as much power as a diesel V8. This is awesome technology that "big oil" would rather we ignored. You can't stop innovation though.

And personally, I drive an old clunker Buick from 1992. The engine has worked great on E10 that entire time. There is no magic degradation due to Ethanol.

RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By C'DaleRider on 8/26/2011 8:01:27 PM , Rating: 2
Wonder where you drive? Gas engines typically do NOT have a 12:1 compression ratio, at least in consumer engines. Those run at best around 9.5:1.

Now, if your talking race engines, you may have a point, but a misplaced point as Ford, Honda, Toyota, et al aren't in the business of selling race engines in their consumer vehicles.


RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By Shinobisan on 8/27/2011 3:31:18 PM , Rating: 2
Sorry, actually yes I was thinking more of race engines. I know more about those than what Ford sells.

Even more of a point then. Compare your 9.5:1 ratio to the 18:1 E85 has to offer. We are getting very close to doubling the compression.

RE: Haters gonna Hate - Ethanol
By nocturne_81 on 8/27/2011 11:50:56 PM , Rating: 2
E85 is not pure ethanol... It is a blend of mostly ethanol along with liquid gasoline and other petroleum distillates to lower it's octane level (to increase volatility), in order to run in a conventional gas engine. It is in no way similar or equivalent to race ethanol, and cannot handle any more compression than normal gas without pre-combusting. As far as race ethanol goes.. 14:1 is the sweet spot for most naturally aspirated blocks. Any higher, then you get into the race blends of methanol and nitromethane.

degrades too quickly
By dgingeri on 8/26/11, Rating: -1
RE: degrades too quickly
By invidious on 8/26/2011 3:20:35 PM , Rating: 3
It sounds like you are speaking in generalities and grossly exagerating.

The vaporized butanol still cumbusts, if the tank it is transported/stored in is sealed then nothing is lost. All gas vaporizes, but your gas tank is sealed so it doesn't go anywhere.

And why would you think that when it vaporizes it would leave water behind? The fuel would be butanol mixed with gasolene, so when the butanol vaporizes it would leave behind liquid gas, not water. You would never put a butanol/water mixture into a combustion engine.

RE: degrades too quickly
By MrBlastman on 8/26/2011 3:31:23 PM , Rating: 5
The vaporized butanol still cumbusts

Please, please don't talk to us about cumbusting here. This isn't a .xxx site. ;)

I can see how you'd want to cumbust from the gas tank but breaking that seal might require a lot of work and then you have to consider whether the nozzle goes in the front or the back... So many variables...

RE: degrades too quickly
By Sazabi19 on 8/26/2011 4:12:18 PM , Rating: 2
Eww, dirty :P

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