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.