Can Panda Poop Make Biofuel a Reality?

Microbes in panda feces could make biofuels viable and more efficient.

Giant panda eating bamboo. (Photo: Sergio Perez / Reuters)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

With their racoon-like eyes and reclusive nature, giant pandas have long held a special place in the hearts of millions of zoogoers, children and adults alike.

Now, scientists are finding out there's something else unique about this species: their feces.

According to researchers at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver on Monday, microbes found in panda poop can break down the fibrous material in grass, corn stalks, wood chips, and of course bamboo, the main diet of the secretive animal.

MSNBC breaks down the hard science:

Under certain conditions, the panda poop bacteria can covert 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars. . . eliminating the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures currently used to produce biofuels. Bacteria would also be a more energy-efficient way to turn materials such as switchgrass, corn stalks and wood chips into fuel, Brown said.

So what does this have to do with alternative fuels? Currently, most biofuels, or ethanol, are derived from corn or sugarcane, edible plants that could be used for feeding human populations. Widely considered to be an inefficient use of land and resources, some naysayers have even called traditional biofuels a "crime against humanity," saying it will artificially inflate the price of food and create food shortages that will lead to millions going hungry.

With these newfound microbes, however, scientists could develop more efficient biofuels derived from inedible plants and plant waste that might have ended up in the crapper anyway.

"Who would have guessed that 'panda poop' might help solve one of the major hurdles to producing biofuels, which is optimizing the breakdown of the raw plant materials used to make the fuels?" said Ashli Brown, a biochemist at Mississippi State University and one of the study's researchers. "We hope our research will help expand the use of biofuels in the future and help cut dependency on foreign oil."

Now, if only there was a way to harness dog poop...

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