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Scientists create Butanol from old newspapers

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First birdcage liners, now fuel.

Scientists at Tulane University have discovered a new use for discarded newspapers — one that can turn yesterday's news into the alternative fuel of tomorrow.

Their research has hit upon a bacterial strain that chomps away at the cellulose in old newsprint, turning the organic material into butanol, a bio-substitute for the gas tank.

The strain is the first bacterial microbe found in nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose, a material found in all green plants, university officials say.

A team led by Tulane molecular biology professor David Mullin discovered the microbe in animal dung at the New Orleans zoo and dubbed the strain TU-103, using the university's initials.

"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," said Harshad Velankar, a postdoctoral fellow working with Mullin's group.

Turning it into butanol is the "dream of many," he said in a statement.

The researchers are using old editions of the hometown newspaper, the Times Picayune, to experiment with the strain. Unlike other butanol-producing microbes, this one can withstand the presence of oxygen.

A patent is pending on the strain, and it's unclear whether the technology has any market viability.

Other attempts at creating biofuel have failed to gain traction, even though the federal government and the auto industry have spent considerable money trying to broaden their presence in the market place.

Ethanol — a plant-based biofuel — was briefly popular several years ago as the gas alternative of choice. Cellulosic ethanol is made from renewable sources, such as corn sugar, agricultural waste and wood chips.

Some researchers have even gone as far as to experiment with turning algae into this fuel.

But as battery technology improved and more automakers turned to electric cars as a way to cut emissions, ethanol has fallen to the wayside. Some claim it damages engines, as well.

Butanol, however, is different from ethanol. It can readily fuel existing cars and trucks without any engine modification and has a higher energy density, making it more like unleaded gasoline.

The auto industry, however, isn't sold on it. Nor have efforts to promote a butanol-gas mixture caught on.


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I wouldn't write-off cellulosic ethanol just yet, but this is a welcome option just the same.

The problem with ethanol is that engines have to get smaller and compressions higher just to equal the fuel economy of gasoline. That ethanol has lower specific energy than gasoline is true, but its combustion properties allow for a more efficient combustion process to extract a greater amount of that energy to bring the efficiency per gallon close to equal of gasoline.

If they could do cellulosic butanol, that would be the holy grail.

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