Researchers Use Termites To Create The Biofuel Of The Future

January 8th, 2019

Researchers Use Termites To Create The Biofuel Of The Future

Many modern thinkers believe that an environmentally friendly and sustainable source of fuel must be developed and utilized if humanity wishes to have a future on this planet. The current use of coal and oil will not suffice as long-term energy sources, and these energy sources emit pollutants that contribute to climate change. In order to develop new and sustainable energy sources, researchers are looking for inspiration in the natural world. For example, the abundance of dead plant matter in the environment could be used to produce energy. However, breaking down plant matter in order to produce energy is easier said than done. Although modern scientific technology makes any undertaking seem possible, experts still have not yet managed to effectively convert plant matter into biofuel. Luckily for bioenergy researchers, termites can break down plant matter, and they are one of the only organisms on earth that are capable of this feat. This makes termites the perfect model for researchers tasked with developing a new form of bioenergy.

At the moment it is not impossible for experts to convert biomass into biofuel, but so far this process has proven expensive and the energy output achieved is too minimal to be considered efficient. The problem with breaking down biomatter, like dead trees, into forms of biofuel has to do with the durability of lignin. Lignin is a polymer found in the cell walls of plants. Lignin is the second most abundant natural polymer in the world behind cellulose. There does not yet exist any forms of technology that can efficiently break down lignin into fuel. However, researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s Energy Institute may have discovered the key to lignin breakdown in the relationship between termites and the fungal species that they cultivate. Some termites species cultivate fungi that can effectively degrade wood, which leads to the breakdown of lignin. By studying how these unique forms of fungi break down lignin, researchers may finally develop new biofuels derived from organic plant materials.

Does it surprise you to learn that modern science has still not yet fully accounted for how termites and the fungi they cultivate break down lignin?

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January 2019