Fungi probably have received the least attention, positive or negative, in the biofuel arena. However, research has demonstrated that several types of fungi may actually make it easier and more efficient to produce biofuels from plant feedstock. In some cases, scientists are even wondering if these fungi might better explain how crude oil came to exist than current theories. Here is what we know.
Gliocladium roseum (Glio for short)
Glio is a fungus that was only recently discovered, but it has some well known cousins, such as the fungi responsible for jungle rot in World War II. Glio was discovered in Patagonia, but similar fungi are known to exists in other parts of the world. What makes Glio so interesting is its ability to convert plant material directly into hydrocarbons that are identical to those found in petroleum.
The standard process of making biofuels involves using yeast (a type of fungus) and proceeds in two steps. First, enzymes are used to degrade plant material into sugar. Then, yeast convert the sugar to ethanol that is then mixed with other fuels or used directly in engines that can handle its corrosive properties. With Glio, the plant matter is converted directly to hydrocarbons in a single step. What is more, the hydrocarbons produced by glio can be used in a standard engine without the worry of corrosion.
Interestingly, scientists have speculated that Glio and fungi like it may be responsible for at least some of the fossil fuels we currently pump from the ground. It was thought that tropical plant matter simply died and over millions of years in the oxygen free environment underground, where temperature and pressure is high, the plant matter turned to fossil fuel through complex chemistry. Some scientists now wonder if Glio wasn’t more widespread in the past when temperatures on the surface were higher (up to 10 degrees higher) than they are now and most of the world’s land mass was concentrated around the equator. In this scenario, Glio would have directly converted plant matter to petroleum, which was then buried. As the continents shifted to more temperate zones, the Glio died but the petroleum remained. It is a controversial theory, but it may have some teeth moving forward as more research is performed.
Cunninghamella japonica (Japonica)
Japonica was discovered at almost the same time as Glio by Russian scientists (Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow). Less is known about this species of algae, but it has similar capabilities in producing hydrocarbons from feedstock. The major difference between Japonica and Glio is that Japonica must be harvested to obtain the hydrocarbons while Glio need not be.