Anyone who reads this site regularly should have a sense of the tremendous versatility of bamboo. It is already used for food, medicine, decorative gardening, the construction of homes and flooring, furniture and other goods, and for clothing textiles. In time we may also be able to add biofuel to the list of its common uses. The idea is not new, and existing methods of extracting biofuels have been considered for application to bamboo, but the process of converting bamboo cellulose into liquid fuel is difficult to execute efficiently because of the extraordinary density of the plant. However, new research from Mississippi State University may hold clues for how scientists can learn to more easily break down bamboo, and thus more efficiently extract biofuels from all other cellulose sources.
This new data comes, fittingly enough, from the first thing that most of us associated with bamboo: the giant panda. The fecal matter of two pandas from the Memphis zoo has been studied by university biochemists in an effort to understand the process by which their stomachs so efficiently break down bamboo. As virtually anyone ought to know, giant panda diets consist almost entirely of bamboo, and so their bodies are designed to break it down very thoroughly in a short period of time in order to extract nutrition from the woody stalks.
The researchers have analyzed the bacterial content of the pandas’ waste and found twelve species of bacteria that aid in the digestive process. These appear to be similar to bacteria found inside of termites, which allow them to consume wood. The next step of the study is to attempt to isolate and reproduce in a lab the digestive enzymes of these bacteria. If the researchers are successful, the manufactured enzymes could be used in a new, much cheaper and more efficient process for converting bamboo and other woody plants into biofuels.
If such a process were to emerge, it would be highly preferable to current sources of biofuel production. Presently, fuels such as ethanol are generally derived from food crops like corn, and this alternate use has resulted in increased food prices and threats to worldwide food security. Not only would bamboo and other non-food sources of biofuels reduce or eliminate these negative consequences of present production, they would provide a source that is more quickly replaced and potentially much easier and less costly to produce. The tremendous rate of bamboo growth means a steady supply of the crop, whatever its use, and stands dedicated to biofuel production would be able to be harvested virtually continuously for that purpose. Additionally, the ability of bamboo to grow in a vast diversity of regions means that as a fuel source it would be widely available and would generally prevent situations of foreign dependence and regional fuel shortages.
The enzymes that could make all of this possible may well prove to have other uses, as well. Bamboo already yields a soft, moisture resistant, and antimicrobial textile for clothing, but the current process for extraction of viscose fiber requires the use of caustic chemical agents. While the vast majority of these are captured and recycled, the existing process is not perfect and since bamboo is such an ideal green resource in most respects, it calls for substantial improvement. If the digestive enzymes that are currently under study can be reproduced and utilized to full effect, it could also present a purely organic alternative to the chemical process of extracting viscose from bamboo. Then, in addition to being an all-around better textile, viscose from bamboo would move from having very little environmental impact to practically none.
The demand for bamboo in all of its various uses is growing in Western countries, just as it should be. And with news indicating that the versatility of bamboo is growing as well, and its production processes becoming more efficient and environmentally friendly, the future of bamboo looks increasingly bright. And by extension, so does the future of a greener world.