Fungal diesel could be new fuel source

A fungus that makes biodiesel as part of its natural lifecycle has attracted the attention of American scientists wishing to tap into its potential.

The fungus has been discovered living in trees in the Patagonian rainforests and is believed to be unique in its ability to synthesize a variety of substances useful in fuel production.

“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Professor Gary Strobel from Montana State University.

“The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment.”

The fungus, which has been named Gliocladium roseum, produces a number of different molecules made of hydrogen and carbon that are found in diesel.

Prof Strobel said that the fungi’s unusual ability to churn out a whole range of hydrocarbons was discovered quite by accident.

His team was conducting experiments on the Ulmo tree, known to play host to a variety of unusual fungi, and the fuel-producing fungus resisted chemicals that wiped out the others and began producing its own gases – which turned out to be rich in diesel-like compounds.

“The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end,” said Prof Strobel.

Many microbes produce hydrocarbons and fungi that live in wood often seem to make a range of potentially explosive compounds.

In its natural habitat – the rainforest – the newly discovered fungus produces many long chain hydrocarbons and other biological molecules.

But when the researchers grew it in the lab, it produced fuel that is even more similar to the diesel we put in our cars.

“When crops are used to make biofuel they have to be processed before they can be turned into useful compounds by microbes,” said Professor Strobel.

“G. roseum can make myco-diesel directly from cellulose, the main compound found in plants and paper. This means if the fungus was used to make fuel, a step in the production process could be skipped.”

“The discovery also questions our knowledge of the way fossil fuels are made. The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years,” said Prof Strobel.

“If fungi like this are producing myco-diesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels.”

Sam Bond

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