'Super yeast' gobbles up trees, spits out ethanol for biofuel

There has been some amazing advances in the fuel-world, such as airplanes being powered by cooking oil and other biofuels being used to replace gasoline. Along the lines of the latter, we're now eyeing trees as a source to help lessen our reliance on dead dinosaurs.

Researchers at the University of Georgia had a biofuel breakthrough when they developed a "super strain" of yeast that can effectively ferment pretreated pine wood into ethanol, one of the most common biofuels. Since pine is the one of the most common species of trees in the United States, this could be a major step forward in replacing gasoline with biofuel (or at the very least lessening our dependence on it).

In the past, this fermentation method was only able to create ethanol in the presence of five to eight percent solid biomass, which is the material in the wood that converts into biofuel. With the super yeast, it can be done with 17.5 percent biomass, thus creating a higher yield of ethanol.

With more solid biomass in the wood, more ethanol is created, but it also becomes harder for the yeast to create it. Think of it like eating a huge burrito: more burrito, more energy but harder to get down. The logic follows simply from there: if you can create more biofuel, you can use more biofuel, thus lowering its price and possibly raising the chances of its implementation as a gas replacement.

To create the yeast, associate professor of microbiology Joy Doran-Peterson and doctoral candidate G. Matt Hawkins would grow the yeast in "increasingly inhospitable environments," which allowed it to grow stronger. Pine, being so ubiquitous, could create huge yields of ethanol from things like unsalable timber and forestry registries.

So next time you're in the woods, chopping wood for the ole' fireplace to keep warm this winter, keep clear of the pine. I hear oak burns beautifully.

University of Georgia, via PhysOrg

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