Corn has been flaming out as a biofuel crop, and taking its place is a regular fruit salad of non-food and waste food alternatives. The latest up and and comer is being developed by researcher Henry Daniell of the University of Central Florida, who naturally turned to oranges for his biofuel inspiration, with a new method for producing ethanol.
The fact that Florida is swimming in oranges illustrates the unfolding potential of the biofuel industry. In contrast to fossil fuels, which are often shipped long distances to their point of use, biofuel production can be tailored to take advantage of local resources, whether it’s biofuel from unmarketable watermelons, algae, carbon monoxide harvested from factory emissions, or even biofuel from microbes and sunlight. As for the connection between biofuel and tobacco, that’s the “secret ingredient” behind Daniell’s success.
Biofuel, Oranges and Tobacco
Oranges and tobacco are just the beginning. Daniel’s approach can be applied to newspapers, straw, and switchgrass as well as food waste such as orange peels (according to an article on the UCF website by Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, Florida alone generates enough orange peels to produce about 200 million gallons of ethanol yearly). The secret ingredient is a tobacco enzyme derived by cloning genes from fungi and bacteria, which is far less expensive than creating synthetic enzymes. The enzyme breaks down “woody” nonfood biomass like orange peels, enabling a wide range of non-food plants and plant waste to be used as feedstock for biofuels, instead of corn.
Biofuels and Fossil Fuels
One problem with conventional corn-based ethanol production aside from its relatively high cost is its heavy carbon footprint. Innovative, low cost biofuel production methods and new feedstocks are breaking down that equation, which eventually will leave fossil fuels with little advantage and one huge disadvantage, the environmental havoc involved in destructive harvesting methods including hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and mountaintop removal for coal (and just plain old underground coal mining). That’s on top of a rapidly growing list of transportation and storage disasters including the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill, last year’s Tennessee coal ash flood, and this week’s relatively small but potentially devastating oil spill affecting the Po River in Italy, at the heart of a key agricultural district.
Image: Oranges by Brooks Elliot on flickr.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.