Tuesday, 04 Nov, 2008 Science
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Diesel Generated from Fungus

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Scientists recently discovered a fungus able to transform plant waste into diesel, which would allow people to produce biofuel without the need to sacrifice food production.

Patagonia is the land of the ulmo tree, whose leaves contain the fungus called Gliocladium roseum. With its help scientists will be able to generate the diesel as a vapor. The process is much easier than the extraction, purification and storing of liquid fuel.

"I would guess the gas mixture itself would be adequate to run an engine," said Gary Strobel of Montana State University in Bozeman, US. He was the one to discover the fungus and spot diesel vapors in Gliocladium roseum, an endophyte, which is a fungus that can be found in between plant cells. Strobel found that the fungus generates the vapors in order to kill off other fungi.

The researcher discovered that the vapors produced by the fungus contain hydrocarbons that are found in diesel, such as, for example, octane. Besides, Strobel found low-molecular-weight alcohols and esters which jointly burn cleanly and more efficiently than normal diesel. Being rich in pure hydrocarbons, means that it is able to burn much more effectively than bioethanol, NewsScientist reports.

In addition, fungus grows on cellulose. This is a significant advantage since cellulose features a lot of hydrocarbon but is very hard to break down.

"It's the most abundant organic compound produced on earth, but most of it goes to waste," said Strobel. He said that large quantities of the diesel vapor "ready-for-use" could be produced through fermenting the fungus on cellulose. However, in order to prove the effectiveness of the idea, more experiments are required.

"We'll do some scale-up and fermentation, then get enough to run a little engine. If we can do that, we are in business," said Strobel. He added that the fungus is very valuable due to the fact that it includes unique genes that produce enzymes, which in their turn beak down cellulose into diesel vapor. In theory these could become more active if they are broken down into other organisms, making it possible for the diesel to be generated more efficiently.

Strobel presumes that: "maybe there are microbial processes that make oil too, so maybe we could make our own crude oil through a process that's totally green."

The finding raises questions on how fossil fuels were produced in the first place. Strobe said that if such fungi generated mycodiesel across the rainforest, they could have contributed to the development of fossil fuels.

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