Food versus fuel -- this rivalry is gaining significance against a backdrop of increasingly scarce farmland and a concurrent trend towards the use of bio-fuels. Researchers at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) are helping to resolve this rivalry: They are working to effectively utilize residual field crop material which has been difficult to use thus far for the industrial production of bio-ethanol. They took a closer look at bacteria that transform cellulose into sugar, thereby increasing the energy yield from plants utilized. If this approach works, both bread and bio-fuel could come from the same harvest in the future.
The age of diesel and gasoline is approaching its inevitable end. However, one of the alternatives, bio-ethanol made from plant material by way of microorganism fermentation, is under attack. Until now, bio-ethanol has been produced from crops such as wheat, sugar cane or corn, or more accurately, from the sugar these crops contain in the form of starch. However, when field crops are used for the production of bio-ethanol, they are no longer available as food. Researchers at the TUM Department of Microbiology are working on a solution to this dilemma. The idea: Make the sugar stored in the stems and leaves of plants in the form of cellulose available for bio-ethanol production. "It is our goal to take the cellulose, which has so far hardly been used, and turn it into sugar on an industrial scale, which can then be processed to bio-ethanol," says microbiologist Dr. Wolfgang Schwarz.
But it is not that simple. As the main constituent of plant cell walls, cellulose is responsible for the stability of the plant during growth and it is therefore extremely sturdy. Sugar molecules form cellulose molecules, which are connected in robust chains to form extremely resilient fibers. Breaking down the stable cellulose into sugar is difficult. Luckily, nature provides enzymes that can do just that. They are found in bacteria, f
|Contact: Jana Bodicky|
Technische Universitaet Muenchen