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Biotechnology tapped to develop alternative fuels
14-June-2008 Manila Bulletin
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Filipino scientists are in the thick of the search for alternative fuels, with experts from the University of the Philippine in both Diliman and Los Baños campuses searching all over the archipelago for energy sources from the forests to the bottom of the sea, from enzymes to fungi and other microorganisms.

Microbiologist at the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) are also researching on the possible use of rice stalks that can be transformed into a feedstock for bioethanol, thanks to some fungi and bacteria that inhabit wood and other materials rich with cellulose. It’s biotechnology to the earth’s rescue.

Biotechnology advocates are also pushing for the extraction of oil from malunggay seeds, which have 35 percent oil content, and these have edged out jatropha plant as viable sources of biodiesel.

Others, like former Agriculture Secretary William Dar, are pushing for sweet sorghum as an energy source, particularly now that global heating is luring researchers into taking a good look at tropical plants for fuel.

Sugar industry leaders have been enthusiastically rushing work on bioethanol plants using sugarcane, which can produce up to 11 times the volume of ethanol compared to other crops.

The entire world is bracing for a regime of skyrocketing fuel prices, with oil breaching the $139 per barrel level and pushing governments to experiment with practically everything organic to produce ethanol, biodiesel and cellulose.

Gone are the days when the oil moguls could lift oil by the shiploads and pay the Middle Eastern sheiks a penny for black gold. So cheap was oil then that Henry Ford opted for oil rather than peanut oil to fuel his Model T. Thus started the onward march of horseless carriages known as cars, and millions of them were manufactured for a world that never believed fossil fuel could be expensive merchandise.

For Prof. Kelvin Rodolfo, who sports the title professor emeritus at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the University of Illinois, a world whose thirst for oil cannot be quenched, unbridled use of fossil fuels is also an attack on the earth and its geology.

The earth, estimated at 4.5 billion years, took at least 600 million years to deposit oil in its bowels and pretty soon, the supply will be used up. Estimates vary but the 2 trillion or so barrels of oil that could run motor vehicles, ships, power plants, factories, and other will be expensive that it would be viable to develop other energy sources.

Rodolfo estimated the peak development of oil as an energy source took place in the 1930s.

By the 1970s, oil had become some sort of drug and every economy was addicted to it. However, the price of crude oil in the world market was stable during the decade, never rising beyond $50 per barrel even if wars in the Middle East and the establishments of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) caused prices to rise, consistent with the desire of the cartel to make more profit from a precious commodity.

Since January 2006, nearly three years after the invasion of Iraq, crude oil breached the benchmark of $63 per barrel and pushed decades-long research on ethanol production and the use of alternative fuels to rev up.

Rodolfo, who is Balik Scientist 2008 for the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), chastises the market for abusing the environment and pushing the natural limits of exploration, drilling down nearly to the earth’s core in seeking more oil. – Biolife News Service

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