Amazing Altfuels


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Adrian Tsang, Bay Ismoyo
31 Monday 31st October 2011

When it comes to the debate on biofuels, things can get pretty heated pretty fast (like what I did there?). On the one hand we've got the argument that firmly stands in favour of them, as an alternative energy source to crude oils and one that may be less damaging to the planet/ozone layer/other parts of our ecosystems that support life. Fair enough. Then there's the opposing line that points out that while they may seem like attractive alternatives, their impacts on food security and sustainability are pretty damaging. You know, along the lines that if we keep razing fields to grow biofuel crops, which crops are actual people going to eat?

Of course, being Don't Panic, our biofuels research started to take a slightly different turn when we tried to think of some viable alternatives to petrol. And we've found some that seem to be pretty strong candidates. From watermelons to treats snatched at airport security we've picked out some of the best unconventional ways to keep things up and running. Our report submission to the United Nations Environment Programme is still a work in progress.

Fungi, one of the possible sources of a new biofuel

Powering machinery with ethanol is obviously the starting point for biofuel research. Recently though, scientists have figured that the cellulose in plants could be a rich enough source of energy too. For those that may have found themselves distracted in school, the cellulose particles make up the bits of energy that we humans can't digest, but plants and other animals can break down (which is part of the reason we don't chow down on cellulose-heavy apple cores). By tapping into this possible well of bubbling energy, a team of researchers are finding new ways for us to use compost heaps as fuel sources. Up to now, most of the enzymes in certain fungi and bacteria that are awesome at breaking down food particles and turning them into reusable energy have only worked at body temperature.  

It turns out, however, that some of these enzymes might be able to bust out a spot of decomposition at about 45C - a good eight or nine degrees up from the optimum temperatures of most bacterial and fungal enzymes. What this means for the food industry is the production of a biofuel that's less likely to get contaminated (the high temperature sorts that out) and can be made faster and more efficiently. The main bummer is that no-one really knows about the long-term effects this kind of biofuel production could have on the planet. And since we've only got one of those, it might be some time before we see the compost heap biofuel flying jets across the sky and whatnot.

On a tastier note, it transpires that watermelon juice is great for not only its deliciousness but its energy capacity. There are apparently pretty hefty amounts of discarded and unwanted watermelons in the US market alone, turned away from consumer markets because they don't look picture perfect. Farmers have to leave these odd-looking (but just as juicy) watermelons on the vine and watch them shrivel, uneaten. Sad times. Sad times made less sad by the fact that the sugary liquid extracted from those tonnes of watermelons could even be enough to fuel the small farms they're grown on. Like some sort of 'watermelons giving back initiative', an acre's worth of the juicy orbs is enough to squeeze out almost ninety litres of ethanol. Not bad at all.

While prepping the watermelons for this transformation the scientists are essentially brewing a sort of watermelon moonshine (which is reportedly awful-tasting). It only makes sense, then, for the kind of alcohol people choose to drink to turn into usable fuel. In strictly booze-controlled Sweden, the government confiscated 700,000 litres of the intoxicating stuff in one recent calendar year. Since it's bursting with the sugar particles that are best converted into energy, cops stopped pouring smuggled schnapps down the drain and started putting it to good use. In an interview with National Geographic Ingrid Jarlebrink, of the customs agency in Malmö stated plainly "This alcohol, which used to go to waste, is now turned into something that's positive for the environment". Not too shabby, and a more consoling version of the story than the one in which your confiscated spirits get set aside for the Customs Authority Christmas party.

Human lipids, another potential fuel source. Not as tasty as watermelons

Other final unorthodox fuel sources we encountered were less largely tasty but still weird. Harnessing the power of poo in used nappies, the muscle fibre of animal carcasses and the fat deposits from liposuction clinics are just a few of the less appetising biofuel sources we discovered. In the long-term the real discussion will come from determining the most effective ways of transporting these new biogasses and biofuels without cancelling out their benefits to the planet. Remember, when the oil crisis hits, you might want to make sure you've got plenty of stored alcohol, mushrooms and dirty nappies.


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