Transportation and Energy Update: Some Big Numbers to Ponder and a New Fuel Source

The Newspaper Problem

The manufacture of paper takes a huge environmental toll on our planet. Paper manufacturing is ranked third among industries on the planet in its consumption of fossil fuels. Every year in the United States, 24 billion editions of newspapers get published. A year’s worth of New York Times on average yield a combined weight of almost 240 kilograms (approximately 520 pounds). Newspaper that ends up in landfill emits methane, a gas that has 25 times  the heat capacity of CO2, and therefore creates a much more potent greenhouse effect.

Our Growing Dependence on Automobiles

In 2010 our Earth was supporting close to 7 billion humans and 1 billion motor vehicles (cars, light trucks, minivans, SUVs and the like). With current growth trends that number will reach over 2 billion by 2030. Every year transportation contributes over 6.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In the United States, transportation is responsible for 33% of carbon emissions.

Are hybrids and electric cars making a dent in these statistics? Hardly. Over the last decade 2.5 million hybrids have sold and a few thousand electric cars. So we remain wed to the internal combustion engine and burning gasoline with the most optimistic projections forecasting 7 million electric cars on the road by 2020. That number represents less than 0.5% of the number of vehicles that will then be in use on the planet.

Marrying Newspapers to Automobiles to Zebras

What’s the correlation between these three? – bio fuel.

What if we could make a bio fuel from newspapers?

What if that bio fuel worked better than ethanol in current internal combustion engines and contributed less carbon pollution?

What if we could find a natural source catalyst to convert newspapers into bio fuel?

Who knew zebras were the answer.

A bacteria found in zebra droppings consumes cellulose and converts it into butanol, a fuel that can be used in current automobiles using internal combustion engines.

The conversion process, discovered by scientists at Tulane Univeristy in New Orleans, combined wet chopped up newspapers with a newly discovered bacterium they named TU-103. The bacteria ate the newspaper and the output was butanol.  The scientists combed the zoos of the world studying bacteria in animal droppings. They tested giraffes, elephants and others but in zebras they found a winner.

TU-103 is a member of the Clostridium genus of bacteria. The Tulane discovery is not isolated. UCLA researchers in 2009 also tested bacterium for a similar purpose. They fed a genetically modified cyanobacteria carbon dioxide to produce isobutanol. Experiments with algae have also yielded butanol when fed CO2.

What makes TU-103 unique is its ability to convert old newspapers, an enormous landfill challenge and a net contributor to greenhouse gases, into a fuel that has 90-95% of the energy density of gasoline, compared to ethanol at 60-70%. That means an automobile engine burns less butanol than a vehicle running on ethanol to obtain the same energy yield. It also means that reprocessing waste newspaper can be a better bio fuel solution than using sugar cane, corn and switch grass to produce ethanol.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...