Waste to Fuel: Biofuel of the Future?

Waste to Fuel: Biofuel of the Future?

From electric cars to steam-powered engines, environmentally responsible engineers have been exploring green alternatives to hydrocarbon-based fuels for years. One eco-friendly fuel option that researchers are beginning to consider is converting agricultural waste to fuel. Researchers at the University of East Anglia are pioneering methods that could be used to convert waste products like straw to eco-friendly bioethanol.

Providing food for an entire planet generates a lot of agricultural waste that is simply left to rot. Straw is one example of an agricultural waste product: it's the stalks that are left over after wheat or oats are harvested. Sawdust and corncobs are other common waste products. Researchers at the University of East Anglia are experimenting with strains of yeast that could be used to ferment these and other agricultural waste products into bioethanol, which could then be used to fuel vehicles.

While processes already exist to convert agricultural waste into bioethanol, they are inefficient and require high temperatures and acidic conditions, which are expensive and dangerous to attain on a large scale. Processes that use yeast to break down these products would be much safer and easier to implement. Researchers have found five strains of naturally occurring yeasts that they think could be used for these processes, and they are also considering genetically modifying yeast strains to make them even more capable of breaking waste down into ethanol.

Bioethanol is a great end-product to use as a fuel source, since the technology already exists to build engines that run on this alcohol. Currently, many companies mix ethanol with standard petroleum fuel, and this mixture can be burned in standard gas engines. Vehicles that run purely on ethanol are on the road in Brazil. Converting agricultural waste to ethanol would allow it to become more prevalent as a clean-burning fuel source. Importantly, using waste products would prevent pressures on the food system resulting from diverting food crops to ethanol production.

When you find yourself wondering what you can do to reduce your environmental impact, "buy an ethanol-burning car" might one day be the answer. Until then, focus on making green changes to your everyday lifestyle, such as putting your purchases on an eco-friendly credit card from Sustain:Green.

Image Credit: "Combine-harvesting-corn" by Unknown USDA licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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