Critics of biofuels often cite the contrary use of foodstocks for producing ethanol, for instance, as a process that will lead to food shortages, and consequently higher prices for fuel and food. One researcher and his graduate students are investigating a way to convert waste such as orange peels and old newspapers, and social and health irritants such as tobacco plants, and turn them into a cheap, clean fuel.
Dr. Henry Daniell is head of the Biotechnology Graduate Program forthe Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. His primary fields of research include developing low-cost methods of delivering pharmaceuticals to patients in need and even vaccines to combat terrorist bioweapons. Involvement with plant-based cures probably helped lead him to this discovery, which the college describes as a possible “breakthrough of a lifetime.”
Daniell’s goal is to “relegate gasoline to a secondary fuel,” with a process that uses “plant-derived enzyme cocktails” to break down biomass into sugar, and then ferment that into ethanol. The argument that the critic’s favorite vegetable, corn starch, requires more energy to create than it in turn produces as ethanol goes by the wayside, since the materials used in Daniell’s are abundant, not foodstuffs, and would otherwise require vast amounts of energy for their disposal, or cause lung cancer in their normal use.
Waste and problematic plants certainly exist in abundance. Discarded orange peels in Florida alone, for instance, could create about 200 million gallons of ethanol a year. Tobacco produces 40 metric tons of biomass annually in each acre of plants. Using cloned genes from wood-rotting fungi or bacteria, Daniell’s team produced enzymes in tobacco plants. Daniell claims that this natural process, rather than manufacturing synthetic versions of these enzymes, could dramatically reduce the cost of making tobacco into fuel.
The process might raise the price of tobacco for cigarettes, though, which could lead to reduced numbers of smokers. In an inverse to the corn as food and fuel controversy, this might be a win-win scenario for everyone concerned.