Horse Manure Key To Streamlining Biofuel Production

April 16, 2013

My sister-in-law owns a horse farm. She has up to 20 horses in her care at any given time. That many horses means a lot of manure. Not only do you have to muck the stalls to rid the area of waste, but you also have to take that waste and dispose of it – unless you want a heaping pile of . . . well, you know what. At my sister-in-law's, the manure is tractored out and spread over their back 20 acres of land.

Horse manure has some practical uses – you can fill holes in the yard or fertilize your garden and roses. But remember, horses eat what we consider weeds, so in addition to helping your garden grow, you'll also grow weeds.

But who knew horse manure held the key to economical production of biofuels from non-food plant material.

According to research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, in an effort to use corn stalks, grass and other non-food plants to make biofuels, scientists described the discovery of a potential treasure-trove of candidate enzymes in fungi thriving in the feces and intestinal tracts of horses.

Michelle A. O'Malley, Ph.D., explained that cellulose is the raw material for making biofuels from non-food plant materials. Cellulose, however, is sealed away inside a tough network of lignin within the cell walls of plants. To produce biofuels from these materials, lignin must be removed through an expensive pretreatment process. Then, a collection of enzymes breaks cellulose down into sugars. Finally, in a process much like production of beer or wine, those sugars become food for microbes to ferment into alcohol for fuel, ingredients for plastics and other materials.

“Nature has made it very difficult and expensive to access the cellulose in plants. Additionally, we need to find the best enzyme mixture to convert that cellulose into sugar,” says O’Malley in a news release. “We have discovered a fungus from the digestive tract of a horse that addresses both issues — it thrives on lignin-rich plants and converts these materials into sugars for the animal. It is a potential treasure trove of enzymes for solving this problem and reducing the cost of biofuels.”

I can't wait to tell my sister-in-law about the potential for all the horse manure she shovels each day. Who knows – maybe she can parlay her piles of dung into dollars. Or at the very least, her very own biofuel.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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