Bill Sali, Psychic

There really is oil in those trees.

A tree fungus could provide green fuel that can be pumped directly into tanks, scientists say. The organism, found in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces a mixture of chemicals that is remarkably similar to diesel.
“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist from Montana State University who led the work. “We were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons.”
[…] Many simple organisms, such as algae, are already known to make chemicals that are similar to the long-chain hydrocarbons present in transport fuel but, according to Strobel, none produce the explosive hydrocarbons with the high energy density of those in mycodiesel. Strobel said that the chemical mixture produced by his fungus could be used in a modern diesel engine without any modification.
Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust.

The good: assuming that Gliocladium roseum ‘mycodiesel’ can be commercialized (Note: big jump. Related: ‘assuming that we can get a healthy adult to Mars and back…’), this could be the holy grail of biofuels. Sugar-based ethanol fuel made from corn or cane sugar is a dead-end due to production inefficiencies and the inevitable competition with food production. Cellulose, on the other hand, is a ubiquitous material that can be grown sustainably pretty much anywhere south of the Arctic Circle on top of the metric tons that we discard or burn every minute. The energy return from directly converting cellulose rather than burning it could be phenomenal.

The bad: To make the most of cellulose fuel sources we need to generalize G. roseum so that it eats whatever sawdust, plywood, hemp stalks or cardboard that we set in front of it. Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can imagine a scenario that ends badly if we release a universal cellulose eating bug in a planet of wood homes and plants that take for granted that their fibers are very hard to digest.

Nonetheless, and assuming that G. roseum pans out, ‘mycodiesel’ is the advance that biofuel researchers have pursued for a very long time.






53 replies
  1. 1

    This vehicle powered by ‘shrooms.

  2. 2
    TheFountainHead says:

    How do you collect the waste (in this case mycodiesel) in a an efficient manner that doesn’t harm the fungi or its food source or interrupt its metabolism?

    Just asking.

  3. 3
    zmulls says:

    This sounds awfully like the first chapter in a Michael Crichton novel

  4. 4
    The Moar You Know says:

    Holy mackerel. This is, indeed, a big fucking deal. It’s that "cellulose to useful material" step that is so hard to find, and this little fungus seems like that missing link we’ve been looking for.

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Roger Moore says:

    Sugar-based ethanol fuel made from corn or cane sugar are a dead-end due to production inefficiencies and the inevitable competition with food production.

    Not to mention that ethanol has a number of serious disadvantages as a fuel. It has a lower energy density than pure hydrocarbon fuels, it tends to absorb water, it can corrode many fuel-line components, etc. It’s mostly popular because it’s relatively easy to make. A diesel-like fuel would be a much better alternative.

  7. 7
    Gus says:

    And lets not forget that you’re still burning something, thereby emitting CO2.

  8. 8
    cleek says:

    engineer a bug that will happily eat generic cellulose and shit out a highly-flammable and poisonous liquid, then hope that bug doesn’t escape into the wild?

    there’s no way this can end well.

  9. 9
    zmulls says:

    @cleek:

    Quiet, I’m working on my screenplay….

  10. 10
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    And lets not forget that you’re still burning something, thereby emitting CO2.

    That’s a good point, but at least it’s CO2 that came from the atmosphere, rather than from burning oil that was locked up in the ground and would have stayed there otherwise. Or, to put it another way, that used plywood, sawdust, paper, etc. is going to rot eventually, releasing CO2 anyway. We might as well get energy from it.

    Sugar-based ethanol fuel made from corn or cane sugar is a dead-end

    For some countries, sure. But Brazil has made great strides in sugar-based ethanol, thanks to their more favorable climate and a government that actually cares about alternative fuels. (most of their ethanol-engined cars are made by US companies)

  11. 11
    r€nato says:

    another good reason to preserve the rain forests.

    Biologists have been saying this for years but now we can point to something very concrete and useful.

  12. 12
    Dennis - SGMM says:

    The good news: I filled my tank with mycodiesel.
    The bad news: The stuff in my tank used to be my garage.

  13. 13
    Llelldorin says:

    Gus, not quite. You’re not adding extra carbon to the atmosphere if the carbon that you’re burning was bound into plant matter–it only just came out of the atmosphere as the plant was growing. Ideally, if we could get something like an atmosphere->kudzu->fungus->oil->atmosphere cycle going, the whole thing could wind up carbon neutral.

    The problem with burning fossil fuels isn’t just that you’re releasing carbon, it’s that you’re releasing carbon that hasn’t been in the atmosphere for millions of years.

  14. 14
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    And just to throw this out there: the three most common components of American trash are grass clippings, paper, and used construction materials.

  15. 15
    Punchy says:

    /reads Balloon-Juice
    //votes for Bill Sali
    ///realizes snark, throws up in mouth, demands ballot back

  16. 16
    Comrade Sock Puppet of the Great Satan says:

    Y’know, I’ve been following the cellulosic biofuels area for several years and am a bit tired of the pattern:

    [Insert Magic Pixie Dust] can degrade lignocellulosics to ethanol/biodiesel whatever.

    Examples of Magic Pixie Dust are: T. Reesei, the flora in termite guts, LS9/Amyris/Genencor/Novozymes latest tweak of their bugs or enzymes, or whatever the fuck George Church or Jay Keasling are working now.

    Yield, productivity, need for preprocessing are all considerations for scale up. I know eventually the right Magic Pixie Dust will be found and a select group of inventors and investors will rightfully become so rich that Brin and Page would look small-timers compared to them, but I’m really fecking jaded. Unlike Amgen or Genentech’s products, getting the right bug is only part of the problem.

  17. 17
    Xenos says:

    @Notorious P.A.T.:
    If that is the case, then we ARE locking up a lot of carbon, are we not?

  18. 18
    The Moar You Know says:

    @cleek: What, yeast?

  19. 19
    peach flavored shampoo says:

    So a mushroom walks into a bar, sits down, and complains to the bartender, "Why wont anyone party with me? I’m a fungi!"

  20. 20
    Katie says:

    I heard this on NPR this morning and thought it was intriguing. Probably a long way off (if ever) from being useful, but still, it was interesting.

    The idea of this fungus running amok and starting to eat wood houses gave a me a wonderful mental picture–I needed something to cheer me up after waiting in line to vote for over an hour this morning. Thank You!

  21. 21
    gbear says:

    Maybe scientists could work on developing a strain that loves to eat nothing but kudzu. Mmmm…kudzu.

    edit: Umm, thanks so much Peach. How long d’ya say your going to be here?

    another edit: oops, Llelldorin beat me to the kudzu reference. I need to remember to read all the way down before commenting

  22. 22
    germ78 says:

    Ah, but can the mycodiesel be refined into other petroleum distillates like kerosene or gasoline? Personally, I’m torn since we need to get away from car-centric planning decisions and infrastructure demands (read: subdivisions and superhighways), and move towards more energy efficient modes of living (transit oriented development, SUPERTRAINS!!), yet this discovery could provide a convenient excuse to continue making poor planning decisions.

  23. 23
    Montysano (All Hail Marx & Lennon) says:

    Interesting times, eh?

    Did anyone see 60 Minutes this past Sunday, specifically the segment about mind control? People are now able to communicate, albeit slowly, by using only their mind to spell out words. One of the subjects had a data connector embedded in her skull, a la The Matrix. Amazing stuff.

  24. 24
    cleek says:

    @The Moar You Know: "What, yeast?"

    yeast doesn’t eat wood, plants, timber, lumber, books, paper and soak what it hasn’t eaten yet with diesel fuel.

  25. 25
    TheFountainHead says:

    soak what it hasn’t eaten yet with diesel fuel.

    Heh. Missed that implication altogether. It not only eats your home, it turns it into a starter log.

  26. 26
    Josh Hueco says:

    @gbear:

    Maybe scientists could work on developing a strain that loves to eat nothing but kudzu. Mmmm…kudzu.

    Or all the damn mountain cedars here in central Texas that give everyone allergies.

  27. 27
    spud says:

    Bill Sali, Psychotic

    FTFY

  28. 28
    Cyrus says:

    Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can imagine a scenario that ends badly if we release a universal cellulose eating bug in a planet of wood homes and plants that take for granted that their fibers are very hard to digest.

    Strobel also said that his discovery raises questions about how fossil fuels were made in the first place. "The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years. [But] if fungi like this are producing mycodiesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels."

    Ah-hah. The real reason dinosaurs became extinct: after surviving a relatively minor global cooling effect from the asteroid, environmentally-conscious raptors genetically engineered a carbon-neutral fuel source, only to go extinct when it decimated the food chain. History repeats, people.

  29. 29
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    assuming that G. roseum pans out, ‘mycodiesel’ is the advance that biofuel researchers have pursued for a very long time.

    We need to develop it just because "mycodiesel" is a cool word.

  30. 30
    peach flavored shampoo says:

    @gbear: all week. Please tip the waitresses, except those carrying drinks, as they might spill ’em.

  31. 31
    Shygetz says:

    How do you collect the waste (in this case mycodiesel) in a an efficient manner that doesn’t harm the fungi or its food source or interrupt its metabolism?

    There’s an entire discipline devoted to answering this kind of question, and the solutions are numerous (and in many cases, ingenious). Suffice to say, it can be done with current technology in multiple ways.

    To make the most of cellulose fuel sources we need to generalize G. roseum so that it eats whatever sawdust, plywood, hemp stalks or cardboard that we set in front of it. Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can imagine a scenario that ends badly if we release a universal cellulose eating bug in a planet of wood homes and plants that take for granted that their fibers are very hard to digest.

    Meh. There are so many tricks in the geneticists’ toolbox to quarantine escaped experimental organisms (e.g. a knock-out mutant that requires addition of an essential nutrient to the culture that isn’t found in your house, books, etc.) that I’m not terribly concerned about this.

  32. 32
    tavella says:

    And this is one of the reasons why the ravaging of our ecosystem is so criminally, criminally stupid. There is a vast genetic library out there, with solutions from billions of years of evolution, and we are freakin’ burning it unread.

  33. 33
    Cassidy says:

    @ Shygetz
    Not a horror movie buff, I assume?

  34. 34
    Nancy Irving says:

    Stupid question: If this pans out it will obviously address the peak oil dilemma, but will it address the global warming and pollution dilemmas, or will burning this stuff in diesel engines create the same or the same kind of emissions produced by gasoline?

  35. 35
    Svensker says:

    How do you collect the waste (in this case mycodiesel) in a an efficient manner that doesn’t harm the fungi or its food source or interrupt its metabolism?

    Teach the little buggers to use the toilet.

  36. 36
    gex says:

    Yes, by all means. Lets spend a lot of time and effort finding non-oil ways to put carbon in the gas tanks of our single passenger/single family cars and burn it to get from point A to point B. [end snark]

    Seriously, I know that we will need some gasoline like fuels to bridge the gap, but there is too much emphasis on burning carbon liquids. If we have to put forth a massive effort in investment, research, and transition, let’s direct that effort in a way that addresses energy and environmental issues.

  37. 37
    Shygetz says:

    @gex: Gex, mycodiesel is carbon neutral–it does not add one ounce of additional carbon to the atmosphere. It does help address both energy and environmental issues, especially as it does not require vast infrastructure remodelling (which, of course, would cost substantial resources and could have serious environmental impact) or additional electricity generation capacity (which also will not be environmentally neutral). It also would also tap directly into one of America’s greatest natural resources–areable land–without displacing food crops. Indeed, it would convert farm waste into fuel, in a carbon neutral manner, giving farmers an additional income source and hopefully making the small farms economically competitive with strip malls as a land use option.

  38. 38
    bago says:

    Yeah, too busy breathing rocket fuel to pay attention to your claims of eating lightening and crapping thunder.

  39. 39
    gex says:

    @Shygetz: How is that? Can you provide a link? The post talks about how it produces hydrocarbons, and compares the output to diesel. Burning things full of hydrocarbons generally produces the same emissions as burning fossil fuels in internal combustion engines. So I am very curious how this is carbon neutral.

    I hope to god that carbon neutral doesn’t mean that the fixed carbon in the stuff that it consumes equals the amount of carbon burning the fuel will emit.

  40. 40
    horatius says:

    Burning stuff is what got us here in the first place. There isn’t enough biological material on this planet that will grow our food, specifically protein content, and satisfy our energy needs at the same time. We have already passed the sustainability of this earth. We need to find another couple of earths with pristine forests and organic material before we can even satisfy our food needs.

  41. 41
    gex says:

    Ah, I see now. The argument is that this is carbon neutral because of the laws of physics, not because there will be a neutral effect on the atmosphere. Total FAIL.

  42. 42
    searp says:

    There is competition, algae based fuel production is also coming along nicely. Basic difference from more conventional techniques: switchgrass may yield 3 crops a year. Algae will do 3 crops a day…

  43. 43
    jenniebee says:

    To make the most of cellulose fuel sources we need to generalize G. roseum so that it eats whatever sawdust, plywood, hemp stalks or cardboard that we set in front of it. Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can imagine a scenario that ends badly if we release a universal cellulose eating bug in a planet of wood homes and plants that take for granted that their fibers are very hard to digest.

    This reminds me of this sci-fi plot I keep thinking up where some freakish libertarian profit-driven deregulation scenario makes it reasonable for research into finding a bacteria or virus that only attacks fat cells becomes a "liposuction without the scars" treatment that seems like a good idea, only it gets loose and eventually makes its way to India.

    If I could figure out a way that Harrison Ford could be racing to stop the spread of the disease, possibly using explosions, I think I’d really have something going with that one.

  44. 44
    Llelldorin says:

    Gex, I simply don’t understand your last post. Burning plants puts the carbon stored in those plants into the atmosphere. Growing those plants in the first place takes that carbon out of the atmosphere. Anything that you can do that amounts to burning plants–assuming that the plants are quick-growing and are regrown afterwards–is carbon-neutral.

    The problem with fossil fuels isn’t merely that they put carbon into the atmosphere. It’s that they put carbon into the atmosphere that hasn’t been there for millions of years. Burning quick-growing plant matter is just using the plant to store solar energy by temporarily binding atmospheric carbon, assuming that you burn in completely enough.

    Note that it’s quite another matter if you supply the plant matter through (for example) deforestation.

  45. 45
    Keith says:

    Not to mention that ethanol has a number of serious disadvantages as a fuel.

    It does have an advantage in that it generates higher horsepower. At least that’s what Koenisgegg inadvertantly discovered when they converted their CCX into an ethanol vehicle. The ethanol cools the engine better than gasoline, hence the HP boost (that plus ethanol’s higher octane rating allows for higher compression)

  46. 46
    gex says:

    @Llelldorin: Plants fix atmospheric carbon slowly. An ever expanding carbon based economy has emitted carbon faster than natural systems. Hence the rise in green house gases. Yes, the total amount of carbon is fixed, absent extra-terrestrial sources, but unless we are talking about finding a way to fix the carbon into plants and natural systems at roughly the same rate we are adding it to the atmosphere, it isn’t really carbon neutral in a meaningful way.

    Which is why my original post asked for sources pointing out how this is carbon neutral. I will grant that if food source for these organisms fix the carbon as quickly as we add it, then it would be reasonably carbon neutral. But if this stuff is just eating carbon that is already fixed in the form of vegetation, landfills, etc. we will be adding carbon that has not been in the atmosphere for a while.

    But if, as you point out, we can harness fast growing vegetation as the carbon source, this might work. Depending on how much effort we have to put into the fast growing vegetation. If we don’t count the carbon emitted in getting these crops growing, and just count what they take out of the atmosphere, we will be echoing in part the lie of ethanol.

    And with that all said, I don’t see any of this helps us with the resource problems that the single family/single passenger car lead to.

  47. 47
    Shygetz says:

    Ah, I see now. The argument is that this is carbon neutral because of the laws of physics, not because there will be a neutral effect on the atmosphere. Total FAIL.

    Yeah, those laws of physics don’t apply to environmental issues. Irony is a dish best served unintentionally.
    Llelldorin has it right:
    CO2->hydrocarbons->CO2->hydrocarbons->etc.
    Every carbon molecule you get out diesel fuel came from sequestration of atmospheric CO2 by the growing plant. The only real negative effects are in particulates, which is a relatively easily soluble problem.

    There isn’t enough biological material on this planet that will grow our food, specifically protein content, and satisfy our energy needs at the same time.

    This eats cellulose, which we can’t use for food (e.g. corn stalks, cotton stalks, etc.). It’s farm waste that is usually just burned or otherwise disposed of today, not foodstuffs that have been converted. Think of it as improved composting for fuel. Combined with improved farming practices, it’s really very green.

  48. 48
    joel hanes says:

    We wouldn’t need to feed our precious cellulose to mutant rainforest fungi nor burn so much of our precious (drinkable!) ethanol if there were fewer of us. Just a whole lot less featherless bipeds trying to scratch a living out of the skin of Mother Earth. Our problems increase with increased population. Planned Parenthood is one of the most effective environmental organizations.

  49. 49
    Shygetz says:

    Plants fix atmospheric carbon slowly. An ever expanding carbon based economy has emitted carbon faster than natural systems. Hence the rise in green house gases.

    No, no, no. Plants fix atmospheric carbon at different rates, depending on the plant; some fix it quite quickly. The rise in greenhouse gases is NOT due to this fact; it’s due to the fact that we tapped into a reservoir of historical fixed carbon and have been releasing it at a very fast rate. Biodiesel is NOT historical carbon, it is contemporary carbon–all carbon that has been fixed recently. Therefore, it is BY NECESSITY carbon-neutral. The only way it would NOT be carbon neutral is if we tapped into historical growth, like old growth forests, for biodiesel. Obviously, that’s not the plan.

  50. 50
    Comrade grumpy realist says:

    As a nanotechnologist, what I want is something that eats CO2 and craps out carbon nanotubes….

  51. 51
    Lesley says:

    There is only one problem: extracting it without damaging the forests (which we and many other creatures and critters desperately need to keep living).

    The insatiable ethanol market has already destroyed a number of habitats other life (like orangutans) depend on.

    I worry that in our haste to find alternatives we will continue plundering the planet of its resources, hastening climate change and the extinction of many species.

    Industry: Please don’t decimate the forests it thrives in and be sure you understand its role in that forest before you decide to take it out. Grow it in greenhouses if you have to.

    Two things humans:
    – birth control
    – conservation and reducing consumption.

  52. 52

    @Lesley:

    The insatiable ethanol market has already destroyed a number of habitats other life (like orangutans) depend on.

    Um…nonsense.

    The orangutans were not affected at all by the emerging ethanol market in Borneo. They were — and still are — affected by the emerging *food* market in Borneo.

  53. 53

    […] Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust. Source: Balloon Juice. […]

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  1. […] Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust. Source: Balloon Juice. […]

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