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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fungal Fuel

Air Date: Week of December 5, 2008

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The tree the fungus grows on in the rainforest in Patagonia.

Scientists have discovered a fungus from the Patagonian rainforest that produces hydrocarbons much like those found in diesel fuel. Jessie Martin reports.

Transcript

[COOL FIX THEME]

MARTIN: When you hear the word fungus, you probably think of mushrooms - or the stuff that grows between your toes after walking barefoot in a locker room. But when scientists from Montana State University hear the term fungus, they think of diesel fuel. That’s because they’ve discovered a fungal species that produces hydrocarbons identical to many of those found in diesel. The scientists believe this fungal fuel – or myco-diesel - could be put directly into diesel car engines with little or no need for modification.


Fungus photo taken with a scanning electron microscope. The image is 5000 times the size of the actual fungus.

The fungus was first found in the Patagonia rain forest, where it grows on trees. It feeds on the trees’ organic matter – including cellulose, the part of plants that animals can’t digest - And it turns that cellulose into diesel. That’s exciting news to scientists because cellulose is a major component of every plant on earth and can be grown with minimal input of land, fertilizer and fossil fuels. And while other groups of scientists are working out the details of making ethanol from cellulose, the Montana State team believes that using fungus to make diesel from cellulose will be an easier task.


The tree the fungus grows on in the rainforest in Patagonia.

One small catch is that the researchers aren’t yet sure how efficient the process is. Ultimately, they may end up taking the genes from the fungus and engineering other microbes that could turn cellulose into diesel more efficiently.

In either case, we may soon have to start paying a little more respect to the fungus among us.

That’s this week’s Cool Fix For a Hot Planet. I’m Jessie Martin.

GELLERMAN: And if you have a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet, we'd like to know about it. If we use your idea on the air, we'll send you a sleek electric blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keep your tires properly inflated and you could save over $280 a year in fuel. That according to a study done at Carnegie Mellon University. Call our listener line at 800-218-99-88, that's 800-218-9988. Or email coolfix—that's one word—at loe.org. That's coolfix@loe.org.

 

 

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