"Gasohol” has yet to become a household word, but researchers in the field of alternative energy sources have long held high hopes for it. A mixture of alcohol and conventional gasoline, the potion can be pumped straight into the tank of any existing gas-powered vehicle. What’s more, its alcohol component is a wholly renewable resource, made easily from farm crops such as corn and sugarcane. Despite the abundance of grain waving in Canadian fields, however, low yields and high production costs have undermined gasohol’s potential as an economically viable fuel in this country. Now a new Canadian discovery promises to change all that. It has emerged from the test tubes of the National Research Council in Ottawa, where after a four-year effort Henry Schneider has found a way to boost the supply.
Currently, the best way of making ethyl alcohol is by fermenting a high carbohydrate feedstock with brewers’ yeast. But because the finicky yeast eats only six-carbon sugars, up to 35 per cent of the feedstock’s potential is wasted. Schneider, however, has isolated Pachysolen tannophilus, an undiscriminating yeast that will consume five-carbon sugars such as xylose with the same avidity with which it attacks glucose and manóse. Substituting P. tannophilus for brewers’ yeast in the conversion process could result in a 30-percent improvement of ethyl alcohol yields. This should “double production, just like that,” claims the discoverer.
Increased production is not the only likely benefit. From the beginning, says Schneider, the intention was to lower conversion costs. Instead of using expensive farm products, P. tannophilus can produce impressive yields from such formerly useless wastes as wheat straw and wood chips.
Schneider is currently searching for some “appropriate mutants” that will make his organism as effective in factories as it is in laboratory beakers. Says he: “We know the organism can do it.” That effort could take years. But if it’s successful, says Art Mayer of Calgary’s Mohawk Oil, the only Canadian firm actively investigating alcohol as a gasoline extender, “It will be a very important discovery, worth hundreds of millions of dollars—zillions even.”
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