A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.
“When we looked at the gas analysis, I was flabbergasted,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist at Montana State University, and the lead author of a paper in Microbiology describing the find. “We were looking at the essence of diesel fuel.”
While genetic engineers have been trying a variety of techniques and genes to get microbes to create fuel out of sugars and starches, almost all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry mill grain process. Ethanol plants ferment corn ears into alcohol, which is simple, but wastes the vast majority of the biomatter of the corn plant.
Using the cellulose from plants — the stalk instead of the ear, or simply wood from poplars — to make liquid fuel is a long-held dream because it would be more environmentally efficient and cheaper, but is far more difficult.