Kanpai! Toyota Turns Wood Into Booze

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

One of the biggest complaints about biofuel is that food is turned into fuel while people go hungry. Price hikes for staples have been blamed on ethanol production, especially subsidized ethanol production. Ethanol is usually made from sugarcane, corn, and beets. Grapes find their way into fuel tanks instead of wine glasses, rice is often driven instead of eaten. Woodscraps and agricultural residue would be less of a moral and financial hazard if converted into fuel. However, it proved resistant against yeasts. Today, Toyota took reporters to a lab in Aichi and showed off a yeast that wood-scraps, dead leaves, straw etc find highly irresistible.

That genetically altered yeast will happily turn otherwise inedible plants and fibers into ethanol. That yeast has such a great appetite for scrap that Toyota hopes to soon “achieve production-cost parity with other liquid fuels such as gasoline.” The yeast on steroids is thought to be ready for deployment by 2020 and should help reduce CO2 emissions while driving.

My forebears were German brewers, and my Weihenstephan-trained father taught me that CO2 is a byproduct of fermentation (it’s the fizz in beer), but that’s another story. In the meantime, Toyota should rush this stuff to America, it will find a ready market here.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href="http://www.tomokoandbertel.com"> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href="http://www.offshoresuperseries.com"> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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6 of 17 comments
  • Elusivellama Elusivellama on Oct 03, 2011

    "rice is often driven instead of eaten" Around here, rice is always driven. Usually with neon running lights and Momo stickers.

  • Robert Schwartz Robert Schwartz on Oct 03, 2011

    You can coax yeast to produce 7% alcohol from barley mash and higher from grapes. These processes are inevitably more diluted and the resultant ethanol water mix is has to boiled a lot harder to produce fuel grade alcohol. The energy cost of doing that is not worth incurring. http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2010/12/01/cellulosic-ethanol-reality-begins-to-set-in/

  • Wmba Wmba on Oct 03, 2011

    "..the yeast has such great appetite for scrap.." Great. What happens when it escapes the lab, drifting on the wind, hungrily eying all the wood of the world? There was a report last week that a famous German beer yeast kept in some cave for 500 years is actually genetically an Andean yeast. So it got to Germany by wind. There are a lot of wooden houses in the world, which these yeasts might classify as "scrap". Kudzu, carp or cane-toads, anyone? At least we'd be awash in fuel, hic.

    • Herm Herm on Oct 04, 2011

      Genetically modify termites to carry this yeast in their stomachs.. it would clean up all the trash wood that is clogging up (and fueling forest fires) our forests.. and the bugs would be happier.

  • Redav Redav on Oct 04, 2011

    This is the type of thing what the switch grass craze was looking for. If you can take a waste product that you normally would have to pay to get rid of & instead convert it into a revenue stream--you make more money because you have more to sell AND pay less to dispose of your garbage. Our pipeline infrastructure isn't compatible with ethanol, so if this does work, it would be ideal for localized fuel production (e.g., farms & manufacturing plants could produce their own fuel to run their operations). However, wmba hits an important point. Cellulose is a very tough material, and that toughness is what allows plants to thrive. If there were an infection that could easily damage cellulose, we could see a blight of epic proportions. However, I believe the problem can be solved, but if it is not, it cannot be a viable technology.