Giant Pandas may be Key to Cellulosic Biofuels
Scientists are searching far and wide for ways to sever our dependency on fossil fuels, and that sometimes means looking in some pretty unusual places. The latest in odd biofuel research involves investigating bacteria found in giant panda feces that help break down cellulosic plant matter. The bacteria, once isolated, may be a key ingredient in the quest to perfect the cellulosic biofuel process.
Cellulosic biofuel is touted as one of the great hopes for the future of the biofuel industry. Using grasses, woodchips and agricultural waste instead of food products like corn and sugarcane is the promise that cellulosic biofuel holds. It does not compete with food production, as is a chief concern of biofuel opponents, and there is an added benefit of converting waste streams into usable energy.
At the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, researchers announced the unique discovery that giant panda feces indeed contains similar lignin-processing bacteria as found in termites and cattle. A giant panda’s diet in the wild consists of about 99 percent bamboo, digesting everything from the leaves and stems to the woody shoots. In fact, a giant panda can consume 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo in a single day.
SEE OTHER TOP STORIES IN THE WDM CONTENT NETWORK
Ashli Brown, Ph.D. and colleagues collected and analyzed feces specimens of a pair of male and female pandas at the Memphis Zoo for over a year. They identified several varieties of digestive bacteria, including some that are strikingly similar to those found in termites, and perhaps even more efficient at breaking down cellulosic material. The scientists believe that panda gut bacteria could convert 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars capable of making ethanol and other biofuels. The bacteria could eliminate the need for the high heat, harsh acids, and high pressures currently required to make cellulosic biofuels.
“Who would have guessed that ‘panda poop’ might help solve one of the major hurdles to producing biofuels, which is optimizing the breakdown of the raw plant materials used to make the fuels?” says Brown. “We hope our research will help expand the use of biofuels in the future and help cut dependency on foreign oil. We also hope it will reinforce the importance of wildlife conservation.”
The research team is now in the process of identifying the most powerful of the bacteria found in the Panda feces. They believe that once the best bacteria are found, they could isolate the genes that produce the enzymes responsible for breaking down lignin and introduce them to yeast strains. The yeasts could then be grown on a commercial scale to provide large amounts of the enzyme to the biofuel industry.
Major move forward for UK’s nascent marine energy sector
Although the industry is small and the technologies are limited, marine-based energy systems look to be taking off as “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine” begins grid-connected power generation at the European Marine Energy Centre.
At around 74 metres long, the turbine single-handedly holds the potential to supply the annual electricity demand to approximately 2,000 homes within the UK and offset 2,200 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Orbital Marine Power, a privately held Scottish-based company, announced the turbine is set to operate for around 15 years in the waters surrounding Orkney, Scotland, where the 2-megawatt O2 turbine weighing around 680 metric tons will be linked to a local on-land electricity network via a subsea cable.
How optimistic is the outlook for the UK’s turbine bid?
Described as a “major milestone for O2” by CEO of Orbital Marine Power Andrew Scott, the turbine will also supply additional power to generate ‘green hydrogen’ through the use of a land-based electrolyser in the hopes it will demonstrate the “decarbonisation of wider energy requirements.”
“Our vision is that this project is the trigger to the harnessing of tidal stream resources around the world to play a role in tackling climate change whilst creating a new, low-carbon industrial sector,” says Scott in a statement.
The Scottish Government has awarded £3.4 million through the Saltire Tidal Energy Challenge Fund to support the project’s construction, while public lenders also contributed to the financial requirements of the tidal turbine through the ethical investment platform Abundance Investment.
“The deployment of Orbital Marine Power’s O2, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, is a proud moment for Scotland and a significant milestone in our journey to net zero,” says Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Net-Zero, Energy and Transport for the Scottish Government.
“With our abundant natural resources, expertise and ambition, Scotland is ideally placed to harness the enormous global market for marine energy whilst helping deliver a net-zero economy.
“That’s why the Scottish Government has consistently supported the marine energy sector for over 10 years.”
However, Orbital Marine CEO Scott believes there’s potential to commercialise the technology being used in the project with the prospect of working towards more efficient and advanced marine energy projects in the future.
“We believe pioneering our vision in the UK can deliver on a broad spectrum of political initiatives across net-zero, levelling up and building back better at the same time as demonstrating global leadership in the area of low carbon innovation that is essential to creating a more sustainable future for the generations to come.”
The UK’s growing marine energy endeavours
This latest tidal turbine project isn’t a first for marine energy in the UK. The Port of London Authority permitted the River Thames to become a temporary home for trials into tidal energy technology and, more recently, a research project spanning the course of a year is set to focus on the potential tidal, wave, and floating wind technology holds for the future efficiency of renewable energy. The research is due to take place off of the Southwest coast of England on the Isles of Scilly