According to mad scientist Harshad "Mr. Fusion" Velankar*, we throw out a whopping 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be turned into usable car fuel. Well, after digging through some animal dung, he and his fellows think we could turn that junk into gas, without having to modify today's vehicles.
*Okay, so Velankar's nickname isn't really "Mr. Fusion" and his science is in no way mad, but the work he and other researchers are doing at Tulane University's Department of Cell and Molecular Biology plugs directly into the dream of being able to fuel a vehicle cheaply and cleanly using waste materials.
Associate professor David Mullin, Velankar and the Tulane team are looking to patent a method whereby a newly uncovered bacterial strain known as TU-103 — which was first observed in animal dung — breaks down cellulose into butanol, which has been shown to work in your average combustion engine without the need for pricey modifications. Cellulose can be found in the cell wall structure of green plants, and is also in all kinds of products from paper and cardboard to anything cotton.
Another huge benefit of TU-103 is that it can break down these cellulosic materials in an environment where oxygen is present — something that previously hasn't been true. What does this mean for you and me? Well, not needing a special environment for cellulosic breakdown to be possible, as well as not having to have a special engine to use the butanol byproduct of the process means that costs can be kept down. High costs are definitely one of the common barriers to alternative fuel production.
"This discovery could reduce the cost to produce bio-butanol," said Tulane's David Mullin. "In addition to possible savings on the price per gallon, as a fuel, bio-butanol produced from cellulose would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog emissions in comparison to gasoline, and have a positive impact on landfill waste."