From: The Daily Texan - 30/04/2008
UT researchers have developed a way to make the production of ethanol more sustainable, less expensive and less laborious.
The University scientists discovered how to use photosynthetic organisms, known as cyanobacteria, to make ethanol, which is a type of alternative fuel.
Ethanol is made by fermenting sugars, such as glucose or sucrose. Most ethanol comes from corn starch, but other sources for the alternative fuel are wood, switchgrass and sugarcane.
Corn-based ethanol has caused problems regarding the overuse of agricultural land and rising crop prices, while extracting sugars from other sources is labor-intensive and costly. The production of sugarcane has also caused a depletion of Brazil's rainforests, said David Nobles Jr., a molecular genetics and microbiology research associate.
The cyanobacteria that the researchers have studied produce cellulose, glucose and sucrose using the energy of the sun. The sugars can be extracted from the bacteria relatively easily and inexpensively. The cyanobacteria can also grow in deserts using salt water and thus would not take up agricultural land, the researchers said "Some cyanobacteria makes sugar directly," said R. Malcom Brown Jr., a molecular genetics and microbiology professor. "Why in the world would we use sugarcane when we can grow sugar in the desert?"
Cyanobacteria are a photosynthetic bacteria, which means they get energy from the sun and use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to convert it into organic components. On a large scale, the researchers said this could help reduce global warming.
"Cyanobacteria have been around for some 3.5 billion years and are responsible for all of the oxygen in the atmosphere," Nobles said. "Cyanobacteria changed the Earth once, and we're looking to make it change the Earth again."
The researchers said it would take about 820,000 square miles of land to produce all of the corn-based ethanol needed to fuel U.S. transportation. They hope the cyanobacteria will replace the ethanol from corn, wood, switchgrass and sugarcane.
"Using food crops is going to stop at some point," Nobles said. "I think we will discontinue using food crops five to 10 years down the road."
The researchers would like to create an energy farm to grow the cyanobacteria on about 5,000 square miles of land in either West Texas, Nevada or Utah, which would sustain the U.S. need for transportation fuel.
Brown said he would love to see an undertaking similar to the scale of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s that would employ millions of Americans to start up the energy farms to produce ethanol.
"It would be a fantastic project," Brown said. "After Kennedy sent a man to the moon, U.S. high school kids became future engineers. We need a revitalization of that for the biofuels area."
Brown said the green revolution started in the U.S. and that the energy revolution will start in the U.S. as well.
"We have a unique opportunity here," he said. "We need to help make it go forward."