Tulane Scientists Fuel Cars with Old Newspapers

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, August 29, 2011 (ENS) – Tulane University has applied for a patent for a novel method of making the biofuel butanol directly from cellulose such as newsprint.

Tulane scientists have discovered a novel bacterial strain, dubbed “TU-103,” that can use paper to produce butanol, a biofuel that can serve as a substitute for gasoline.

TU-103 is the first bacterial strain from nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose, an organic compound.

The process was developed by associate professor David Mullin, postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar and undergraduate student Hailee Rask. They say their current experiments with old editions of New Orleans’ newspaper the “Times Picayune” are a great success.

David Mullin, right, Harshad Velankar, center, and Hailee Rask. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano courtesy Tulane University)

“Cellulose is found in all green plants, and is the most abundant organic material on Earth, and converting it into butanol is the dream of many,” said Velankar, a postdoctoral fellow in Mullin’s lab in Tulane’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.

“In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year,” he said.

Mullin’s lab first identified TU-103 in animal droppings, cultivated the bacteria and developed a method for using it to produce butanol. A patent is pending on the process.

“The most important thing about this discovery is TU-103’s ability to produce butanol directly from cellulose,” explained Mullin.

He said that TU-103 is the only known butanol-producing clostridial strain that can grow and produce butanol in the presence of oxygen, which kills other butanol-producing bacteria.

Producing butanol in an oxygen-free space is possible, but it increases the costs of production.

Butanol is more similar to gasoline than it is to ethanol and has been demonstrated to work in vehicles designed for use with gasoline without engine modification.

The researchers say that as a biofuel, butanol is superior to ethanol, commonly produced from corn sugar.

Butanol can be transported through existing fuel pipelines, and it is less corrosive and contains more energy than ethanol, which would improve mileage, they say.

Bio-butanol can be blended with gasoline at up to 16 percent in standard engines – a mix that can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions twice as much as the current maximum 10 percent ethanol, scientists have found.

“This discovery could reduce the cost to produce bio-butanol,” said Mullin.

“In addition to possible savings on the price per gallon,” he said, “as a fuel, bio-butanol produced from cellulose would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog emissions in comparison to gasoline, and have a positive impact on landfill waste.”

Tulane will have competition when bringing its biobutanol to market. Two giant companies – BP and DuPont – have joined forces to make and market biobutanol.

In July 2009, BP formed a joint venture company with DuPont, called Butamax Advanced Biofuels, which is developing biobutanol and bringing biobutanol technology to market.

Butamax inventions include recombinant microorganisms that convert various feedstocks to biobutanol, process engineering for recovering biobutanol produced during fermentation, engineering design for optimized energy integrations, and various renewable fuel and chemical compositions.

Under the partnership, there currently are more than 60 patent applications in the areas of biology, fermentation processing, chemistry and end uses for biobutanol.

Butamax is poised for commercial launch sometime in 2012 or 2013, the company says on its website.

Butamax is overseeing a biobutanol technology demonstration plant, located in Hull in the UK, where the technology will be proven at scale. In November 2010, Butamax’s opened its biobutanol technology laboratory in Brazil, located at the City of Paulinia in Sao Paulo state, to accelerate the commercialization of sugar cane to biobutanol production.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.