Alternative Fuels From Unusual Sources

tobacco plants

Oft-maligned tobacco plants could be a source of biofuels in the future. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Today, the fuels we might call “alternate” were once prime candidates to supply many of our energy needs.

For instance, Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the engine that bears his name, thought his machine would run on peanut oil. Even Henry Ford thought the Model T, the automobile that transformed the United States into a commuter culture, would run on ethanol, a fuel derived from corn. Petroleum products won out over these more ecologically friendly choices for the mere reason of availability. To put it simply, the extraction and transportation of oil and coal delivered more power at cheaper costs than any known alternative.

A biofuel is any fuel that contains energy from recently-living organisms, like the peanut oil and ethanol. They’re created by subjecting “biomass” (plant or animal material) to heat, chemicals, or even bacteria to break down the material and create the fuel. Dwindling petroleum resources, the rising prices of these fossil fuel resources, and the inability to exploit potential new resources have steadily increased the demand for alternate fuel sources such as those derived from plant and animal materials. But while oils and other fuels derived from living matter may not seem too far-fetched to you, you might be surprised at some of the sources scientists think can be tapped to satisfy our ever-increasing energy demands. A few of them, you might say, literally “stink.”

Professor Jon Veramendi of the Instituto de Agrobiotecnología (Agrobiotechnology Institute) in Navarra, Spain, for instance, thinks one potential source of a new biofuel might be found in the tobacco plant. Tobacco is a surprisingly fast-growing, high-yielding plant, and, if cultivated correctly, could contain higher levels of starches and sugars necessary to produce ethanol. This new use for the oft-maligned plant also would help to offset the loss of revenue tobacco growers have experienced in the last few decades due to the decreasing percentages of adult smokers.

And if others have their way, you may not be able to go anywhere without stepping in a potential biofuel source. About a decade ago, a group of environmentally concerned residents in city of San Francisco, California, had the idea of converting “dog waste” into energy. As one of the more dog-friendly cities  in the U.S., “canine castoffs” accounted for as much as 4 percent of San Francisco’s total municipal waste.  The idea was to supply residents with biodegradable bags into which they could place dog waste. They would then deposit the bags into tanks containing methane producing bacteria. As the bacteria broke down the waste, the methane produced could be used for energy. Unfortunately for the shoes of those who live in the city, the plan never got much traction. About four years ago, however, artist Matthew Mazzotta created a working lamp in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, dog park that visitors kept going with dog waste. And while probably not the front-runner for replacing gasoline in cars, such initiatives demonstrate that at least some of our increasing energy needs can be satisfied in simpler, sustainable ways.

Still, perhaps the most ambitious push for the use of animal waste as a biofuel has received generous funding (about $42 million) from no less than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The money is going to support research that would place science fiction like toilets in some of the world’s poorest countries. These toilets wouldn’t just dispose of human waste in an environmentally friendly way. They would also literally transform it into resources such as charcoal, salt, and (slightly unsettling to think of) drinking water. It’s all part of an initiative to “Reinvent the Toilet,” and the desire is to have the tripped-out commodes able to work without a substantial infrastructure of pipes and other sanitation systems. To date, several models of these super-toilets have been proposed. Some even extract hydrogen waste from human waste; hydrogen that could one day fuel hydrogen powered cars.

So, if you’ve thought that the proverb to “waste not, want not” only applied to the waste of good food or money, think again. Soon, what we think of as waste may become difficult to define. One day, the family dog may even be contributing to our electric bills!

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While EcoZine is on summer vacation, we are posting articles from EcoZine’s sister site, BioZine. This article first appeared on BioZine in April 2014.

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