Recycled newspapers could fuel your car, say scientists

Researchers at Tulane University have found a bacteria that can turn cellulose into biofuel. The Tulane team has been experimenting with old copies of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper.

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Don't give up on the newspaper industry just yet--it could soon be powering your car. Researchers at Tulane University have discovered a strain of bacteria that can turn paper into butanol, a biofuel substitue for gasoline.

The bacteria, dubbed "TU-103," was found when the folks in David Mullin's lab in Tulane's Department of Cell and Molecular Biology were weeding through the contents of some animal droppings one day. It turned out to be some lucky scat--TU-103 is believed to be the first bacterial strain from nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose, an organic matter found in everything from paper to Caesar salads.

"Cellulose is found in all green plants, and is the most abundant organic material on earth, and converting it into butanol is the dream of many," said Harshad Velankar, a postdoctoral fellow in Mullin's lab, in a statement last week. "In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year."

That means all those newspapers sitting in your closet, garage, or that scary back room you don't let anyone into could one day be converted to go-go juice. The Tulane team has been experimenting with old copies of the New Orleans Times Picayune, and reports great success.

TU-103 also has the unique ability to produce butanol in the presence of oxygen, which means lower costs than similar methods requiring an oxygen-free environment.

"In addition to possible savings on the price per gallon, as a fuel, 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," says Mullin.

Perhaps even more important, it gives the newspaper industry more ammunition to make the case for its own relevance. Now we just need a way to turn all our old feature phones into fuel...

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. Paula Burch-Celentano / Tulane University
 

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