Scientists turn seaweed into efficient biofuel

By Danny Wicentowski

The end of fossil fuel dependency may have just gotten closer.

Scientists at the University of Illinois and University of California at Berkeley have significantly cut the production time of “turning seaweed”: and other plant matter into biofuel using a genetically modified yeast cell. This is a step that University professor Yong-Su Jin said he believes will allow countries to move closer to energy independence, as well as staunching environmental damage from petroleum use.

According to the “study”: su jin&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT, which appeared in the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the collaborative project reduced the amount of time it took to produce ethanol from red seaweed by 30 percent.

Jin explained that the traditional process of creating ethanol from plant matter was hampered by naturally occurring yeast cells’ need to digest different types of sugars one after the other, instead of all at once.

The problem lay in the relationship between glucose ­— found in plant matter as well as being the most abundant sugar in nature — and the yeast cell, which evolved to process glucose so efficiently that it ignores any other sugar present until all glucose is consumed.

Jin used the metaphor of placing both ice cream and broccoli before his young son: The child will pay no attention at all to the broccoli until he has thoroughly devoured the ice cream. Using the modified strain of yeast, Jin has essentially allowed both the ice cream and broccoli to be eaten at the same time.

The research was funded by the British Petroleum Energy Biosciences Institute.

According to a “2010 report”: produced by President Obama’s administration, the U.S. is producing 12 billion gallons of biofuel per year, mostly from corn. But Berkeley graduate student Jonathan Galazka said that using corn as a feedstock for biofuel production raises not only practical problems, but ethical ones.

“I think the biggest argument against corn right now is that it is food, and you are diverting food stores from people in this country or other countries into gas tanks,” Galazka said. “If you end up raising the price of food potentially globally, then you could end up affecting those in poverty.”

The best scenario, Galazka said, would be to use a crop which can be grown in places not currently used for growing produce, but he predicts that multiple sources of feedstock will be needed to meet individual country’s needs.

“I think when people look at the future of the biofuels industry, they realize that there’s not going to be one solution,” Galazka said.

He added that differing geography and natural resources will determine a region’s method of biofuel production.

“If you look at a state like Oregon or Washington, where they have a large timber industry and tree growth is very productive there, then you may consider using some kind of fast-growing tree like poplar as a sugar material,” he said. “However, if you’re in Japan, where you don’t have arable land at all, you may consider something that can be grown in the ocean.”

Yet the true potential of the innovation lies in its ability to be incorporated into yeast regardless of whether it is producing ethanol or some other biofuel, said Berkeley professor Jamie Cate.

“The nice thing about this system is that it can be integrated into those yeasts as a modular sort of widget,” Cate said.

Cate said ethanol is a subpar form of fuel, and research is currently underway in the U.S. to replace it with increasingly more efficient biofuels, eventually producing fuel that is the functional equal of gasoline.

“What people would like to do is to make something that can be directly put into cars at high concentrations,” Galazka said. “So the best replacement for gasoline is gasoline.”