February 3, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Corn Is Fuel in More Ways than One

There’s been controversy lately about the diversion of corn crops from food for humans to ethanol for engines.  Why not both?  A new pilot program announced by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft saves the corn cobs for eating but makes ethanol out of the straw.  If so, this would make the whole plant an energy factory for the human and the car he or she drives.  What’s more, the test facility produces ethanol from the stalks with 30 percent more efficiency, in less than half the time.  One of their secrets is using enzymes to break down the cellulose before the fermentation process begins.  The bio-gas and heat produced can be captured in fuel cells to power homes.

If this invention works as good as the press release, it sounds great; more power to them.  The thing that deserves more praise is the cornstalk.  That wobbly plant blowing in the wind is an energy marvel.  Practically the whole plant can be converted into useful energy.  Think about all the designs that make these energy conversions possible.  All the benefits depend initially on molecular machines that capture the energy of sunlight and convert it into high-energy substances the plant uses to grow and make more machines.  Then, humans or animals can eat parts of the plant, using their machinery to extract that energy for their needs.  The remainder, which used to lie on the ground and decompose via the machinery in insects, bacteria and fungi, can now be utilized to replace oil and natural gas.  This sounds like an all-around benefit.
    If you shine sunlight on a rock, it will capture energy, too – heat energy.  Then it will release it back at night at a rate defined by its thermal inertia.  But that energy is of little use to man, other than for warming your hands at night for a short time; the energy is stored simply as vibration of molecules in the rock.  The high yield of useful energy in corn is achieved because plants contain complex, highly-efficient mechanisms for capturing sunlight, passing ions delicately down prescribed biochemical pathways according to a program that converts the energy into useful forms that can be stored and released for a purpose.  That is why rocks fall down but corn grows up, producing seed and food.
    The scientists may have had corn for dinner the day they thought of their invention.  If so, the corn’s energy went into intelligent design.  This story has a “biomimetics” tag, but it’s really biotechnology.  It’s taking off-the-shelf technology in plants and enzymes and reworking the design to achieve a goal desired by humans.  The scientists were spared the hard work of inventing photosynthesis and enzymes.  All they had to do was adapt existing systems in new ways.  It’s like hitching a plow to an ox, only with more finesse.

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Biomimetics

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