By on October 3, 2011

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.

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17 Comments on “Kanpai! Toyota Turns Wood Into Booze...”

  • avatar

    Is that really any different from “wood alcohol” or methanol, which Indy cars ran on from around 1965 until recently?

    • 0 avatar
      Hildy Johnson

      Yes, the yeasts produce ethanol, not methanol. Apart from a higher energy content per weight, ethanol should be less corrosive. I also suspect that the yield, in terms of carbon in vs carbon out, is better for ethanol fermentation. Will check this later.

      • 0 avatar
        Hildy Johnson

        Seems there really isn’t a viable fermentation process for methanol at all. Methanol is instead produced chemically. In production of methanol from biomass, a large fraction of the energy is indeed expended on the process itself. So, an efficient process for ethanol fermentation from biomass would be real progress.

  • avatar
    Hildy Johnson

    Interesting idea.

    The fundamental problem with would and other cellulose-rich plant residues is that cellulose is poorly soluble. That makes biochemical reactions inherently slow, as they can proceed only at the surface of the insoluble particles.

    I guess that these yeasts have been transplanted with the genes for some degradative enzymes from cellulose-digesting bacteria, or maybe other fungi. Once the cellulose has been cleaved to glucose, the latter can then be fed into the fermentation pathway that is indigenous to yeast. In this fermentation, 1/3 of all glucose carbon is released as CO2, whereas the other 2/3 becomes alcohol.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      So, this is how we save the planet — by adopting a process that releases 1/3 of the carbon as a greenhouse gas?

      Very interesting . . .

      • 0 avatar
        Hildy Johnson

        The reasoning is that the carbon was recently converted from CO2 to wood, so it is ‘sustainable’ to turn it back from wood into CO2. If the wood is simply left to rot, most of the carbon will wind up as CO2 as well, only a bit more slowly.

        Of course it won’t save the planet, but if (once) it becomes cost-effective, why not.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Can someone tell me why we don’t render the fat from dead people and turn that into biofuel?

    • 0 avatar

      Not exactly the same thing, but similar in concept…

      Chicken fat to fuel

    • 0 avatar

      Wasn’t there a story a few years back where a California plastic surgeon was arrested for making biodiesel for his Excursion out of the fat from his liposuction patients? I recall from that news tidbit that there are actually laws prohibiting making things such as fuel from former human body parts, but maybe there are places without such laws.

    • 0 avatar

      Any biological material from humans needs to be disposed of as medical waste and labeled as biohazard. Why? Because disease can be easily transmitted during handling.

      Also, one gallon of human fat equates to roughly one gallon of fuel. So the carcasses of Grandpa, Grandma, and dear ol’ Nana won’t be enough to fill up a Civic. That is unless they were extraordinary fat.

      Please leave these macabre endeavors to H.P. Lovecraft and Tyler Durden.

  • avatar

    Can’t wait for some greenie to post how this is going to cut down more trees or that the dead wood and leaves should be made into compost or fertilizer or something.

  • avatar

    “rice is often driven instead of eaten”

    Around here, rice is always driven. Usually with neon running lights and Momo stickers.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    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.

  • avatar

    “..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.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

  • avatar

    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.

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