As it looks like we’ll be running out of oil in the not-too-distant future, scientists have been hunting for an alternative to fossil fuels for use in cars and other vehicles. Some cars around the world are already running on ethanol, produced from crops such as corn. But it’s expensive to make the fuel, and there are other environmental issues around the large-scale farming needed to produce the corn.
Instead, scientists are looking at breaking down cellulose, a sturdy chemical that makes up the tough cell walls in many plants, then fermenting it to produce ethanol. But breaking down cellulose isn’t easy either, and requires the use of enzyme proteins. Currently, the enzymes that have been used for breaking down cellulose aren’t that efficient. But now researchers at Cornell University in the States have discovered a group of plant enzymes that could potentially produce ethanol from cellulose more efficiently than our current technologies. This would make the process less expensive, and allow fuel to be produced from lower-grade crops, such as grasses or fast-growing trees.
The new enzyme was found in a tomato plant, and although more research is needed to find out exactly what it does, the researchers think might be involved in breaking down cell walls when tomatoes grow as they ripen. The scientists also have evidence that similar enzymes exist in many other types of plants, which could be useful for making biofuels. For example, researchers might be able to breed fuel plants with high levels of these proteins, which would help to break down the cellulose in them and kick-start the fermentation process.