Could “putting the cow inside the plant” make a new biofuel?

October 14, 2010

SWITZERLAND/The Next Big Thing in biofuel might involve genetically engineered plants that digest themselves, making it cheaper to turn them into fuel. That’s one of the new ideas that Arun Majumdar finds fascinating. As the head of the U.S. Energy Department’s ARPA-E – the path-breaking agency that aims come up with efficient, green energy solutions — Majumdar said this concept is one of a few dozen that are in the development stage now.

Majumdar let his enthusiasm show as he described this project at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit on Thursday. He was talking about a project in its early stages at Massachusetts-based Agrivida.

“If you look at biofuels, cellulosic biofuels  …  you take agricultural waste, you separate out … the cellulose, then you throw a bunch of enzymes at them. And these enzymes are there in the cow’s gut, or termites, that break down this long chain polymer, this cellulose, into small bits and pieces called sugar molecules. And then you take those sugar molecules and feed them into another bug and then you produce gasoline,” he said.

The costly part of this process, Majumdar said, is growing these enzymes in a bio-reactor instead of in a cow.

“What this company’s doing is a very interesting idea. They take the gene sequences that produce enzymes and put them in the plant itself, so when the plant grows, it produces the enzymes free of cost.” But isn’t there a risk that the plants wouldn’t grow, since they would carry enzymes that would make the plants self-digesting? One possible solution is what this start-up company is trying: make the enzymes inactive, and activate them later by changing temperature, humidity or acidity.

“It’s supposed to chew itself from the inside,” Majumdar said, with evident delight. “And I call this ‘putting the cow inside the plant.’ It’s an amazing idea. Now I don’t know whether it’s going to work, but if it does, you essentially eliminated the cost of those enzymes, which is the really expensive part, and you create a more competitive pathway for biofuels than what is traditionally being done.”

For more from the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit, click here.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud (Cows traditionally decorated for the so-called Desalpe procession are pictured in Charmey near Bulle, September 25, 2010)

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