In the Microbial Sciences Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the incredibly efficient eating habits of a fungus-cultivating termite are surprising even to those well acquainted with the insect’s natural gift for turning wood to dust.
According to a study published today (April 17, 2017) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when poplar wood undergoes a short, 3.5-hour transit through the gut of the termite, the emerging feces is almost devoid of lignin, the hard and abundant polymer that gives plant cells walls their sturdiness. As lignin is notorious for being difficult to degrade, and remains a costly obstacle for wood processing industries such as biofuels and paper, the termite is the keeper of a highly sought after secret: a natural system for fully breaking down biomass.
“The speed and efficiency with which the termite is breaking down the lignin polymer is totally unexpected,” says John Ralph, a UW-Madison professor of biochemistry, researcher at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and lignin expert. “The tantalizing implication is that this gut system holds keys to breaking down lignin using processes that are completely unknown.”
Researchers from across Europe, led by University of Limerick (UL), Ireland, have begun a project to produce carbon fiber from forestry by-products.
Carbon fiber is a reinforcement which when added to plastic improves its mechanical properties thereby forming a composite material. Composites are used in many products including automotive parts and wind-turbine blades. However, carbon fiber is currently produced from petroleum which is expensive and detrimental to the environment.
The LIBRE project, led by Dr Maurice Collins of the Stokes Labs, Bernal Institute at UL, aims to create carbon fiber materials in a cost-effective and more environmentally friendly way, by producing them from a naturally derived wood product called ‘lignin’.
“The production of carbon fiber from lignin will allow us to move away from the reliance on fossil fuel,” Dr Collins explained.
Abundant, chock full of energy and bound so tightly that the only way to release its energy is through combustion — lignin has frustrated scientists for years. With the help of an unusual soil bacteria, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories believe they now know how to crack open lignin, a breakthrough that could transform the economics of biofuel production.