Scientists claim that cars could run on old newspapers


August 26, 2011

Tulane associate professor David Mullin (right), postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar (center), and undergraduate student Hailee Rask have discovered a bacteria that converts the cellulose in newspapers to biofuel

Tulane associate professor David Mullin (right), postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar (center), and undergraduate student Hailee Rask have discovered a bacteria that converts the cellulose in newspapers to biofuel

Hopefully, your old newspapers don't just end up in the landfill. In the future, however, they might not even be used to make more paper - instead they may be the feedstock for a biofuel-producing strain of bacteria. Named "TU-103," the microorganism was recently discovered by a team of scientists at New Orleans' Tulane University. It converts cellulose - such as that found in newspapers - into butanol, which can be substituted for gasoline.

"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 team member Harshad Velankar. "In the United States alone, at least 323 million tons [293 million tonnes] of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce butanol are thrown out each year."

The scientists first discovered TU-103 in animal feces, and have since cultivated it, and developed a patent-pending process that allows it to produce butanol from cellulose. In their lab, they have had success using newspapers as the cellulose source. While other bacteria have been found to produce butanol in the past, they have all required an oxygen-free environment, which increases production costs. TU-103, on the other hand, is able to survive and function in the presence of oxygen.

Although ethanol is also derived from cellulose, butanol is reportedly superior to that biofuel in several ways - it can be used as is in all unmodified automobile engines, it can be pumped through existing pipelines, it is less corrosive, and it contains more energy.

"This discovery could reduce the cost to produce bio-butanol," said David Mullin, whose lab in Tulane's Department of Cell and Molecular Biology was the location of the research. "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."

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Cellulose is easy to turn into various biofuels. This isn\'t that helpful. The real problem is that so much of the biomass is locked up in hemicellulose and lignin. That\'s where the breakthrough is needed.

Plasma Junkie

Is it safe? Can we be sure these bacteria won\'t escape or mutate and wipe out the Amazon rainforest?

Is it scalable?

If the answer to both is \'Yes\' - then what are we waiting for? We can eliminate so much waste and solve much of the energy problem at the same time!


I am all for alternative solutions but it seems like there is a number of offerings yet none get to market. And with the demise of so many daily newspapers I am not sure if this source is sustainable. I vote for algae fuel.

Mark A

If you believe the green fascists propaganda about AGW the land fill is exactly where newspapers should end up. It is called carbon sequestering.


This could presumably use other sources of cellulose, like crop residue, or grass clippings...

William Lanteigne

ermm.... again...... how exactly is this going to boil down to \" cheaper fuel\" for us mere mortals here at \"grass-roots\" level... I thought so yes!

all I can see is the oil overlords now just have another way to up the profit margin even that much more...

Michiel Mitchell

Very Good innovation. Does it mean Cellulose rich plants can also be used for fuel. Already Agave is used as Biofuel in Mexico.

Anumakonda Jagadeesh

\"This could presumably use other sources of cellulose, like crop residue, or grass clippings...\"

My first thought was of a lawn mower that sucks up the grass clippings and converts them into fuel for the mower. :-)


\"If you believe the green fascists propaganda about AGW\". @Slowburn, you really are a Corporate Tool, aren\'t you?


Gee, another cheap, efficient, less polluting alternative to putting petrol in my car. That must make almost 100 alternatives I\'ve read about in the last 3 years. How come I can still only buy petrol? Does it fall into the same category as car companies saying they have to charge more for electric vehicles or hybrids to cover development costs when we know they price cars as they want to, regularly offsetting a minimal profit on one vehicle to be made up by higher margins on other models. A couple of hundred dollars extra on the price of every petrol vehicle would surely allow hybrids and electric vehicles to be sold more cheaply than conventional models. But just like the story for alternative fuels, the oil companies don\'t want it so we don\'t get it.


This has all the same problems as making ethanol. It is a good thing to reuse celluose that can\'t be remade into paper/packaging etc. But I doubt there would be enough to satisfy demand for fuel.

It is a good example though how bacteria could be useful in ways not thought of.

I liked the bacteria that turns sand into stone.

Karsten Evans

There is no shortage of celluosic material. One example of how much is what is available from agriculture. I grew up on the plains of eastern Colorado/western Kansas. What was a problem then (over 40 years ago) is a problem still: what to do with all the straw and stalks left over from the wheat and corn grown on those thousands upon thousands of acres. Only so much can be composted and/or plowed back into the ground, which many farmers have done. Most of it, though, gets bailed and the stuff gets stacked or piled on an unused portion of land. Sometimes it\'s used as windbreaks against the fierce northern winter winds. For the most part it just sits there in ever-growing amounts, taking decades to rot into the earth and even then never fully does. My guess is that there is millions of tons of it and I\'m sure most farmers would welcome the chance to get rid of it...especially if someone paid them. I know I would.

Neil Larkins

Who reads newspapers anymore?


Glad to see some promising research and results on bio-butanol; it had been ages since I saw any mention of the subject. Hopefully it can be scaled up and at least blended with gasoline to reduce oil-dependence (if not used at 100% concentration outright).

Wishing the best of success to Prof. Mullin and his team!

Suman Subramanian

So what is the cost? How much cheaper is it? And will the process be patented? Or is this open source technology?


Just out of curiosity, how much water does it take to make this or other alternative fuels? Are we substituting one scarce resource with another? Not against new technology and definitely excited about new options for transportation fuels, just wondering if anyone has crunched the numbers. By the way that was not rhetorical; if anyone has numbers for water quantities required for alternative fuel from recycled resources and from purposefully grown feed stocks would be great to see. Thanks.

Jim Friedl

Water - we already have Reverse Osmosis. The only problem is moving the water away from the ocean.....and pump tech is pretty well established by now. :)

James Dugan

This is about the forth or fifth real breakthrough on using cellulose feed stocks. All of these have been within the last 10 years (keep thinking is about 6 years max). One of these was based on a algae that was known for making cows drunk. Each seems to be better at using the rougher cellulose. This is waste not food stock. Think lawn clippings and so on not corn. Ask any farmer and they will have a few acres that just won\'t produce normal crops but they would grow grasses and so on.

If you look for molecular sieves, there are some that can take a wort and sieve out just the desired fuel without having to use energy to distill.

The pieces are all available now, just need to do it. We can grown and create our own non subsidized renewable fuels.

Facebook User

Lots of people make the point that taking such innovations to scale rarely seems to happen. Can anyone give me specific examples of where waste has effectively been used to create fuel, energy or other products on a large scale? I am making an inventory and would like to examine them further.

@ Jim Friedl - I think some work on the water requirements of biofuels has been done by the International Water Management Institute if you are interested.

Alex C

What\'s holding back isobutanol R&D is the ethanol industry. The companies invested into ethanol production lobbied governments to get subsidies to help fund their ethanol distilleries.

They also funded politicians\' campaign funds - on the condition that they write and pass laws mandating ethanol be mixed into gasoline. Just ethanol, nothing else. The same is shaping up on biodiesel, but as yet no specific sources for the non-petro-oil fraction are in force. Of course the corn growers selling to ethanol producers would dearly love laws that specify only corn oil derived biodiesel would be subsidized.

Breaking the superior to ethanol isobutanol into the market against the very well funded ethanol industry and ethanol \"fueled\" politicians support is going to be extremely difficult.

Another thing going against isobutanol is the auto companies have heavily invested in producing \"flex fuel\" technology that can automatically adjust to any mix of gasoline and ethanol from straight petrol to straight ethanol. None of that expensive tech is needed for isobutanol. I\'d like to see how a flex fuel vehicle operates on straight isobutanol, or if it futzes up the fuel mix sensing system.

Isobutanol contains nearly as much energy per volume unit as gasoline. In many vehicles there\'s no noticeable difference in performance or efficiency VS straight gasoline. Straight isobutanol is a better fuel than E10 and way better than E85.

Gregg Eshelman

Re Aussie_Renewable

No corporate involvement. I\'m just not a useful idiot.


I would like to point out, if someone hasn\'t already done so, that newspapers are not likely to last more than the next 10-20 years, as technology continues to grow and more people convert to digital media for all their news.

Just me two bits.

MSG, US Army (Retired)

It good for the world and helpful too and the people now save fuel and gas. I think we can burn paper (Carbon) for making energy - can any one share the easy way for that.

Kazi Hossain
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