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Discovering Fuel Source from Termite Guts

The simple fact that somewhere in the guts of all termites lives hundreds of very efficient cellulose-decomposers drove the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics winner Steven Chu to propose that it is possible to make use of termites in producing eco-fuel. While the famous physicist is still clueless as to how the microbes inside termite guts are able to disintegrate cellulose so efficiently, he is thinking that through research and bio-engineering, it is possible to develop industry grade microbes that can produce ethanol-like fuel which will help solve the fuel crisis that the world is experiencing.

In Chu's theory, it the microbes can be extracted from the guts, then it will be possible for people to convert even the weeds that grow in their lawn into useful fuel. However, Chu and the other termite-fuel advocates like are still in the process of researching for ways to genetically modify termites or the microbes in their guts to make them disintegrate cellulose faster.

The Problem with Ethanol Production Today

The idea of using natural methods in ethanol extraction was given birth after many experts have realize that the amount of energy needed to convert corn and figs into clean and usable bio-fuel is much greater than the actual energy that can be generated from the fuel converted. In fact, although it has been scientifically proven that ethanol burns cleanly and can extracted from many other types of plants that grow in many countries, it has also been proven that the process of producing such a fuel is not clean at all! In fact, the amount of pollution that is produced in ethanol production plus the amount of energy that has to be spent in order to get ethanol are the two main reasons why ethanol is gaining rapid disapproval among many countries today.

However, in Chu's mind, it will be possible to extract ethanol from plants without having to consume fuel and produce pollution. Since the guts of the termites provide a livable environment for a certain type of microbes that can disintegrate plants and produce ethanol in the process, Chu and his team and exhausting all their energies now in finding a way to extract the microbes from the termites' guts or to bio-engineer the termites to grow more of such microbes in their guts so that they will be able to produce more than what they need for survival.

Investments on Termite Development

It might sound absurd to those who don't know the possibilities of producing ethanol through termites to know that many multinational companies are actually investing on termite development laboratories. For example, Amyris Biotechnologies, a synthetic energy company has invested $500 mln USD in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory where Steven Chu conducts his researches. The United States Government is also starting to include termite research in its alternative fuels research, of which it spends hundreds of millions of dollars.

LS9, another synthetic biology company has also funded Chris Somerville, a termite energy extraction advocate like Steven Chu to conduct termite researches for the company.

What about the "plants" that mutated termites will have to feed on?

Now, if comes the time when scientists and physicists are able to make mutated termites with extremely huge guts that contain millions of cellulose decomposing microbes, what plants would the termites devour? Steven Chu comes in with a simple idea. His team plans to use Miscanthus weeds in the production of ethanol.

Miscanthus is a very fast growing weed that can grow up to 14 feet. The weed can be chopped off up completely (leaving behind the roots) and in a year's time, the weeds will grow back to as much as 14 feet again. Chu suggests that the weeds can be allowed to grow in vast useless lands where most crops will find too difficult to thrive. Like all weeds, Miscanthus does not require a very healthy soil to grow, nor does it need that much water. Thus, useless lands can be transformed into Miscanthus fields and they become very useful.

Other Thoughts from Other Researchers

Apart from Steven Chu, an environmental microbiologist in California named Jared Leadbetter has other thoughts about using termites as energy source. According to Leadbetter, the microbes that live inside termite guts can be used to produce industry scale hydrogen. Today, alternative energy companies have found it too costly and complex to extract hydrogen used in fuel-cells. Now, if the microbes can be synthesized to produce hydrogen as a by-product of cellulose disintegration.

Fuel cells are energy converters that produce electricity by separating the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water. The process creates a flow of electrons which produces electricity. However, in order to separate hydrogen and water, a catalyst is needed and that's where the hydrogen generated by termites comes into the picture. In Leadbetter's head, if the research becomes a success, then households will be able to have a sustainable energy source which they can use both in their homes and in their cars.


While the idea of using termites as an alternative fuel source may sound very ambitious by now and might not even succeed in the future, one very good that we should learn from the minds of these brilliant people is that no matter how pestering some creatures and organisms are, surely they can be useful in some other ways. Termites might be responsible for a billion worth of damages that the country has to suffer from each year, but termites also give the pest control industry a huge amount of earnings.

Apart from the money earned by some people because of the presence of termites, people like Chu and Leadbetter also direct us to the fact that termites have some good uses too. I do not mean to campaign pro-termite mentality here, all that I am saying though is that we must try t look beyond the "pest" nature of termites, because in truth, these creatures do not attack our homes because they really plan to do so. Termites dig mindlessly, thus, it is possible to simply direct them out and far from your house without having to kill them; just a thought

Michael Rozatoru
termite extermination