Bugs in Termite Guts May Offer Future Fuel Source

ByABC News
May 24, 2005, 11:36 AM

May 25, 2005 — -- Steven Chu looks down the road and sees an America that is free from foreign oil, powered by home-grown genetically engineered fuel that burns cleanly and is as available as the weeds that grow in your garden.

And where does this Nobel laureate get his inspiration? From termites. Or more specifically: the guts of termites.

Chu, who won the Nobel for physics in 1997, isn't claiming that termites can save the world, as one headline recently screamed. But he does believe that the natural processes that allow termites to turn the hard fabric of plant material -- cellulose -- into an ethanol-like fuel hold secrets that could lead to cheap, clean-burning and virtually limitless fuel.

But first, he has to figure out how the termite works its magic.

"I haven't a clue," he says candidly about exactly what goes on in the guts of a termite. "But I'll find out."

Chu isn't thinking about building a better mouse trap. He's thinking about building a better termite. Or more precisely, he wants to create a whole new class of microorganisms, tiny microbes that are genetically engineered to produce far more fuel, or ethanol, than they need to survive. They would be tailor-made versions of the microbes that convert cellulose to fuel for termites.

It sounds far out. But this isn't a guy given to daydreaming. He has challenged the prestigious lab he now heads, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, to attack the problem on a multi-disciplinary basis.

"This is Steve's crusade right now," says a colleague. "He feels passionate about it."

Ethanol is a hot-button issue today, and hotly debated, because it can be used as a substitute for gasoline. But there's one serious problem. According to various studies, it takes more energy to extract ethanol from the most common source, corn, than the amount of energy that ends up in the ethanol.

It's a net energy loser, and while the fuel may be relatively clean, the processes required to produce it aren't.

It's "clearly a bad bargain," says one report out of the Berkeley lab.

That's precisely what Chu wants to change.