Recent research out of Washington State University Tri-Cities may have you looking at your compost pile in a new light.
Researchers at the north Richland campus have discovered a way to develop a component of jet fuel from a common black fungus commonly found in decaying leaves, soil and rotting fruit. The discovery could pave the way for an economical method to biologically produce aviation fuels in coming years.
There’s still work to do to refine the process needed to produce the fuel, particularly in large quantities, said lead researcher Birgitte Ahring. But this initial find has a lot of potential, as has been the case before with microscopic life.
“When (Alexander) Fleming first found antibiotics in a Petri dish, it was a tiny amount,” Ahring said.
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Ahring, who came to the university in 2008 and is the Battelle distinguished professor of the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, or BSEL, facility, has worked on the project for two to three years. She was motivated to find a game-changer when it came to biofuels, something akin to the discovery of ethanol, which is often produced from corn, she said.
The WSU system was designated as a Center for Excellence in Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 with a particular emphasis on jet fuel development. Part of the program’s work is going through BSEL, a joint partnership between WSU Tri-Cities and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Ahring’s team has used the black fungus, Aspergillus carbonarius, in other research. And biofuels researchers have long been interested in fungi because they can produce hydrocarbons, the main component of petroleum, but work in the area was limited, a news release said.
“Even though the fungus has been used for other purposes, it had never been tested for this,” said Annette Sorensen, a post-doctoral research associate who has worked with Ahring on the project.
What they found was that the black fungus could produce hydrocarbons eating a variety of food sources, specifically material that doesn’t have many other uses. While a diet of oatmeal led to the most hydrocarbon production, wheat straw and leftovers from corn production also created the jet fuel component.
As to why the fungus produces hydrocarbons, the researchers said it may have to do with defense. They found that the fungi produced more hydrocarbons, which take a lot of energy to produce, when attacked by bacteria.
But that’s society’s gain, as it means using less chemical conversion processes to produce the jet fuel component and potentially reduce costs. Produced in large enough quantities the fungus could produce up to 50 percent of a fuel mixture used in an airliner, Ahring said. Her team is still working on how to ramp up the fungi’s production, potentially through tweaking its genetic code.
The initial findings were recently published in the April edition of the Fungal Biology journal and more work will be published in the coming weeks and months.