Originally published on the ECOreport.
Can fungi biofuels replace conventional jet fuel? Not yet, but Dr Birgitte K. Ahring, Director of Washington State University’s Bioproduct Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, thinks it may happen someday. Fungi produce a hydrocarbon blend similar to jet fuel. They naturally do many of the complex chemical processes that drive the costs of other biofuels up. Dr Ahring and her colleagues hope to have a fungi biofuel ready to scale into the market five years from now.
Fungi biofuel will probably make its commercial debut as an additive that can be mixed with conventional fuel in blends of up to 50%. This ratio is expected to grow higher until, sometime in the next 10 to 20 years, fungi biofuel may be ready to totally replace conventional aviation fuels.
Washington State’s fungi story began with a search to find a biofuel that was more similar to conventional fuel than ethanol. They looked at different bacteria and algae. Then, in 2011, they tested one of the fungi they often worked with in the lab. Much to their surprise, it produced a blend of hydrocarbon that “is pretty similar to what you have in a normal jet fuel.”
The challenge is to make fungi produce more hydrocarbons than they normally do. Dr Ahring and her colleagues cite the five years it took to develop antibiotics as a model of how this process could unfold. Once they find a strain “that is interesting enough to produce on a bigger scale,” they will move out of the lab.
“We have a small pilot plant on the university, which is something very unique here. The Bioproduct Sciences and Engineering Laboratory was formed to help the bioeconomy, especially in Washington state, and we have a lot of focus on producing products that will go to the market,” said Dr Ahring.
At that point, the future of fungi biofuels lies in the industrial sector. Preliminary estimates suggest it can probably be produced at a price competitive with conventional fuels and not produce the emissions.
All images courtesy Bioproduct Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, Washington State University