Termites in Your Tank

Could the microbes that bugs use to digest wood be the answer to economic ethanol production?

4 min read

Finding a cheaper way to make ethanol from biological waste products is a top priority around the world. Researchers at dozens of companies addressing the problem say they may find the answer in tiny bioreactors that turn wood into sugar. These centimeter-long chemical factories aren’t the product of a government lab or an industry consortium but of millions of years

Right now, the primary feedstock for ethanol produced in the United States is corn. Last year, nearly 2 billion bushels, representing one-fifth of the U.S. corn harvest, were used to produce automotive fuel. The resulting 18 billion liters of ethanol were enough to meet roughly 4 percent of the country’s 1.45â''billion-liter-a-day fuel demand. The U.S. Department of Energy’s goal is to replace 30 percent of the gasoline with biofuels by 2030.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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