Researchers Produce Gasoline-Like Fuel Directly From Switchgrass, Corn Stalks

A big breakthrough in the race for better biofuels was announced this week from the U.S. Department of Energy, where the department's BioEnergy Science Center figured out how to produce isobutanol, a gasoline-like fuel, directly from cellulose (i.e. corn stalks and switchgrass).

A team led by James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles discovered that a genetically engineered microbe (Clostridium cellulolyticum) can convert cellulose into isobutanol, which is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol. This marks the first time that cellulose has been converted into the substance.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said Liao in a statement. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification." Isobutanol could, in other words, dilute some of the sticker shock of rising gasoline prices.

There is still a long way before the DOE's technology hits gas stations; the study was just a proof of concept. But the DOE isn't the only organization working on butanol. Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are using E. coli to convert sugar into n-butanol. So far, they have managed to squeeze out 15 grams per liter from sugar using the microbe. That research is also in the beginning stages.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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