Researcher: Neal Blair, Northwestern University
Take your car on a trip … with mushrooms. Well, not exactly. A team of researchers from Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden are studying the use of fungi for biofuel production.
Scientists are working to use fungi to turn the most abundant organic materials on earth into sources of biofuel. Lignin, cellulose, and chitin are the most abundant biochemicals on the planet – and currently next to useless. They make up such things as plant cell walls, insect exoskeletons, and crab shells.
“Soil fungi are the only organisms we know that are capable of degrading lignin, cellulose, and chitin,” explained Neal Blair, principle investigator of the team at Northwestern University. “If we could take lignin, of which there’s a lot of it on the surface of the planet and we have really no use for, and convert it into biodiesel for instance – that could be potentially very valuable.”
The ability to produce biofuel from such large resources could vastly improve its viability as an alternative to traditional oil and gas. Currently, biofuel produced from food crops presents competition for food supplies as well as environmental issues.
Blair, along with post-doctoral associate Thea Wilson and Chicago Botanic Garden researcher Louise Egerton-Warburton, studies strains of fungi with high lipid content and their potential for biofuel use.
A high lipid content, as well the special properties of fungi, make it a noteworthy candidate for biofuel production. Unlike corn, grass, or algae, fungi do not need sunlight to grow, reducing the land area required for production. They feed on an enormous variety of materials, including the lignin and cellulose of agricultural waste, or even chitin from waste crab shells.
Fungi also have the ability to grow rapidly. A study in 2010 showed that some fungal strains can produce 100 tons of lipids a year per hectare at a dry mass lipid content of 40 to 50 percent, as compared to a plant such as rapeseed, which yields 3 tons a year with similar dry mass lipid content.
The research started when it was discovered that some fungal species have a very high lipid content, which can be extracted as oil. Studies have shown some strains have a 60 to 70 percent lipid content. In comparison, high lipid content in algae is 30 percent or higher.
Though the research is relatively new – Blair’s project, funded by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), was started about a year ago – the idea for extracting biofuel from fungi has been around for some time. The Russians conducted a number of studies on extracting lipids from fungi for biofuel purposes in the 1980s, but were not successful. Low petroleum prices until the upsurge in the 2000’s meant the idea got little attention until recently.
Blair said that there is still a long way to go in the research. “The biggest challenge is that not all the [fungi] that make lots of lipids will necessarily want to grow on crop waste,” he said.
“The key thing,” said Blair, is to find a fungal strain that enjoys feeding on these abundant biochemicals to convert them into biofuel.