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Termites can make ethanol

Termites can make ethanol

Termites can make ethanol
March 6, 2007

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), says that termites can be used to make eco-friendly ethanol. He cites U.S. government backed research showing that “microbes living in the guts of termites have potent enzymes able to efficiently and cost effectively transform woody wastes into sugars for ethanol production.”

“Ethanol yields from termite technology could, within a few years, out strip those from crops like maize and even sugar cane,” he adds.

Noting that current biofuel production in fraught with environmental and social concerns, Steiner says that the effort to develop next generation biofuels has researches focused on some of the world’s smallest creatures.

“In the race to develop the next or second generation biofuels, these humble life forms are attracting a great deal of scientific, financial and political attention.”

His statement appears below.

Tapping Termite Technology for Green Gold Mining

Editorial By Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, who is visiting Brazil between 5 and 7 March 2007

When the Presidents of Brazil and the United States meet next week, the surprising topic of termites might be high on the agenda.

For in the race to develop the next or second generation biofuels, these humble life forms are attracting a great deal of scientific, financial and political attention.

Termite microbes could generate 2 liters of hydrogen from a single sheet of paper

Termites efficiently transform the more abundant fractions of plant biomass (lignocellulose) as well as the more recalcitrant fractions of organic-rich soils (humic acids) to valuable metabolites (e.g. hydrogen and methane). They are able to do so by exploiting the diverse metabolic capabilities of microbial symbionts inhabiting their hindguts. A refined understanding of the microorganisms and the biochemical pathways they use within in the termite hindgut may therefore lead to more efficient strategies for converting biomass to useful fuels and chemicals. Similarly, an ability to harness the pathways directly involved in, or impacting upon hydrogen production in the termite gut may one day make biological production of this alternative energy source a viable application. This is a particularly attractive avenue to explore because many termite hindgut microbes appear to be hardwired for the conversion of plant-derived sugars into molecular hydrogen, even when operating in the background of high local hydrogen partial pressures. For perspective, the efficiency of termite hindgut microorganisms is such that they are capable of producing about 2 liters of hydrogen from fermentation of a typical sheet of (cellulose) printer paper.

Text quoted from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute Project.

US Government-backed scientists claim microbes living in the guts of termites have potent enzymes able to efficiently and cost effectively transform woody wastes into sugars for ethanol production.

Ethanol yields from termite technology could, within a few years, out strip those from crops like maize and even sugar cane.

The US is investing billions of dollars in alternative fuels, a slice of which is now earmarked for termites. Similar studies are being undertaken at Kenyan tropical insect labs with funding from Europe.

Samuel Bodman, the US Energy Secretary, spelt it out recently to an audience in Washington: “They (termites) have been doing this for a million years. Our goal is to tap the secrets of these natural processes and harness them”.

Biofuels have, in what seems a breathtakingly short time, become the green gold. The US is planning to increase alternative fuel use by a fifth over 10 years.

The European Union is backing plans to have biofuels make up a mandatory 10% of its fuel consumption by 2020.

Brazil, the undisputed pioneer in the field with some 30 years of experience in bio-ethanol, is signing new agreements with sugar producing countries like Jamaica.

Europe has asked Brazil if it can deploy Brazilian technology and know how in Africa for bio-ethanol production there.

Domestically Petrobras has indicated plans to expand production 15 fold and increase exports to 200 billion litres—up from three billion—over the next two decades.

The future would seem to be rosy and like the sugars used to make ethanol, sweet. But there is another future harvest that may prove a more bitter one.

Concerned groups and anti-biofuel alliances are being forged drawn from environmental, social and food security backgrounds.

Strident voices, in some cases reminiscent of those opposing nuclear power, are starting to be raised.

There are fears that energy crops will consume wildlife habitats and economically productive forests.

There are also concerns that the new drive may perpetuate poor working conditions in the agricultural sector and aggravate food insecurity by diverting food from hungry mouths into petrol tanks.

Energy companies are worried that a consumer backlash may be looming that could trigger boycotts undermining biofuel investments.

Boycotts of the kind witnessed in some developed countries over the introduction of genetically modified foods or like ones now emerging over carbon emissions linked with agricultural products air-freighted from, for example, East Africa to the UK.

Governments are acting to allay concerns. Indonesia for example has announced that it will not permit or license palm oil plantations for bio-diesel production in national parks or protected areas.

Brazilian experts have been quick to point out that any sharp rise in ethanol exports can be met without infringing on the Amazon or using extra farmland.

However if the future for biofuels is to be maintained, internationally agreed standards will be urgently needed–needed to calm industry and markets and re-assure consumers that alternative fuels are not only climate friendly but meet wider environmental and sustainability goals.

Biologically-based alternatives—like those being pursued with termite enzymes—may be part of the solution. Unlike the current crop-based biofuels, they will utilize cellulose wastes, may employ skilled or semi-skilled rather than unskilled labour and perhaps lead to a new generation of cleaner, biofuel production centers.

Brazil, home to one fifth of the world’s biodiversity including numerous species of termites, is well placed to seize this opportunity and to maintain leadership as the biofuel powerhouse of the world—well placed to ensure that its hard won pole position in this field is not eclipsed by new technological developments elsewhere or by consumer concerns real or imagined.

President Lula’s recent announcement of close to $5 billion investment in biotechnology reflects this understanding and underlines Brazil’s determination to keep one-step ahead.

UNEP, in partnership with other UN agencies, industry, the G8 group of nations along with China and India, is also working through the new Global Bioenergy Partnership.

Here discussions are underway on standards setting including possible areas like certification. It is one approach among several possible avenues all of which could benefit from the influence and experience of Brazil and its rapidly evolving regional and global role.

In the past Brazil has often viewed international environmental standards and governance with some skepticism, perhaps justifiably.

But success in the rapidly globalizing market place, where much of the focus of Brazil’s Accelerated Economic Growth Programme lies, may rest on a multi-lateral approach

So while President Bush may raise the issue of earth living termites, I plan to seek President Lula’s support for standards setting and a truly sustainable regulatory framework for biofuels when I have the pleasure to meet him in Brasilia in a few days time—I am sure Brazil is ready to take this lead.

The future of biofuels clearly lies in the soils. The question is whether that future is in crops or in second generation fuels like those possible from termite enzymes. Or perhaps like so much of Brazil’s transport fuels, a blend of both—of the old established technology and the new rapidly emerging ones.

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