Space & Innovation

Will Cars of the Future Run on Poop?

Could brown be the new green?

Researchers at UCLA have found a way to use waste matter (yes, including poop) to make a new generation of sustainable biofuels.

In 2008, the USDA estimated that the U.S. alone produces over 1 billion tons of manure annually, including both livestock and human sources. This waste produces nitrous oxide and methane emissions, greenhouse gases that are 325 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But what if all this poop could have another use – one that could stimulate a sustainable biofuel movement?

Using a bioengineered strain of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, David Wernick and colleagues at UCLA created a system in which the bacteria take a protein (e.g., poop) and produce an advanced alcohol biofuel and ammonia, which can be reused as fertilizer.

Compared to ethanol, the branched-chain alcohols that are created this way are much more energy-dense and don't require expensive changes to existing infrastructure and vehicles.

"You can drop it right into your car. You don't need any modification," said Wernick.

While making both fuel and fertilizer with protein waste is a nice trick, Wernick says that's just the start of what could be done with the bacterial process.

"If we want to focus production on organic solvents or chemical building blocks or pharmaceutical intermediates, it would be possible to adjust the strain with a few steps to produce other compounds of interest," said Wernick.

Read more: Could poop be a sustainable fuel source?

Watch: Could Poop Power our Cars?

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