University of Florida Researchers have been investigating how termites
break down wood for food, in order to find an easier way to convert plant material to ethanol. So far they have identified two enzymes the insects use to soften tough molecules called lignin which envelope the sugar molecules. These enzymes could be used for creating cellulosic ethanol, which is typically made from wood chips, switchgrass or corn cobs.
Why is cellulosic ethanol important? According to a Department of Energy website, “…research shows CO2 emissions from cellulosic ethanol to be 85 percent lower than those from gasoline.” Using it as a fuel for vehicles also can reduce air pollution. If the Florida researchers can pinpoint the most effective enzymes, the process of breaking down wood waste materials for fuel conversion could be sped up and made cheaper. “This is definitive and original research that could realistically be a significant contribution to green energy,” said University of Florida professor James Preston.
Enzymes are already in use for producing cellulosic ethanol, but the cost used to be a barrier. With more research and production, enzyme costs for a company called Novozymes have been reduced by 80 percent in the last two years. The cost of production could now be as low as 2 dollars per gallon, which means it has parity with similar fuels already being used on the roads. Novozymes is working with a manufacturer to open a 25 million gallon plant in 2011 which will make fuel from corn husks and cobs.
The University of Florida’s enzyme research could help improve cellulosic ethanol production and lower its cost. Both of those advances would be good for consumers and for the American economy, as it moves towards energy independence.