Cars Could Run on Recycled Newspaper

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Tulane has applied for a patent for a method to produce the biofuel butanol from organic material, a process developed by associate professor David Mullin, right, postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar, center, and undergraduate student Hailee Rask. Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano

Those that say the newspaper is dead may want to think again. Thanks to recently-discovered bacteria, recycled newsprint could be converted into biofuel.

Scientists at Tulane University in New Orleans have discovered a new bacterial strain that can convert paper into butanol, a biofuel that can be used as a substitute for gasoline.

They are currently experimenting with copies of The Times Picayune, New Orleans’ venerable daily newspaper, with great success.

The strain, dubbed TU-103, is unique in its ability to produce butanol directly from cellulose, an organic compound found in plants and paper.

Scientists first discovered the strain in animal droppings, cultivated it and developed a patent-pending method to use it to produce biofuel.

At least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol end up in landfills each year in the United States alone, scientists said.

The new method could not only decrease America’s dependence on oil, but also make use of materials that would otherwise be thrown away.

“Bio-butanol produced from cellulose would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog emissions in comparison to gasoline, and have a positive impact on landfill waste,” said David Mullen, the associate professor who discovered the strain with the help of two of his students in the university’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Researchers experimented with other forms of bacteria to produce butanol. But TU-103 is the only strain discovered to date that can grow and produce the biofuel in the presence of oxygen, which kills other butanol-producing bacteria.

The need to produce butanol in oxygen-free environments dramatically increases the cost of production, scientists said.

The new discovery will decrease the cost-per-gallon of butanol as fuel and make the conversion process more economically attractive to producers.

As a biofuel, butanol is superior to ethanol – which is typically produced from corn sugar – because it can readily fuel existing vehicles without any modifications to the engine, and it contains more energy, which means better gas mileage.

Butanol is also far less corrosive than other biofuels, meaning it can be easily transported through existing pipelines without fear of damage.

 

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