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Originally published March 28 2007

Termites may hold the answer to cheap, efficient ethanol fuel production

by Christian Evans

Scientists and several companies are currently experimenting with using termites to convert wood, corn stalks and other plant waste into ethanol in an effective and economic way. The hope is that through the study of a termite's unique digestive processes and selected microbes, pollution-free energy may be developed to help solve the world's imminent energy crisis.

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What you need to know - Conventional View

• The United States is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in alternative fuels, part of it being spent on termite research.

• A termite's intestines take indigestible cellulose, which makes up the bulk of all plant material grown on earth, and convert it to ethanol, a versatile and popular fuel.

• The US already subsidizes farmers to grow corn for ethanol, but the process isn't carbon-neutral or safe for the environment

• The current ethanol manufacturing process relies almost exclusively on corn kernels and yielded only 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year, according to the environmental non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council

• Ethanol creates very little pollution when burned.

• Termites can convert 95% of what they consume into energy within 24 hours by using the bacteria and protozoa that inhabit their digestive tracts.

• This termite technology could surpass corn and sugar cane-based ethanol in a few years.

• Supporters of alternative energy sources believe that energy companies may be able to produce ethanol easily and inexpensively through the use of termites.

• "The process is like making grain alcohol, or brewing beer, but on a much bigger scale," said Nathanael Greene, an analyst with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "The technologies are out there to do this, but we need to convince the public this is real and not just a science project."

Bottom line

Through a process using termites, an alternative method of making ethanol is currently under development.

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