For years, soybeans have been the predominant base for biodiesel fuel in the United States. But the crop has a major limitation — it can’t grow everywhere, preventing its widespread adoption as a fuel.
Hal Alper, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has come up with a replacement. It’s found in your bread: yeast. After it undergoes some chemical tinkering and mixes with sugar, Alper and his team of researchers say yeast can then be converted into what he calls “sweet crude biofuel.”
He says yeast has been transformed into unlikely products such as alcohol for “thousands of years,” now it can be transformed into fuel. Alper says soybean and yeast have almost identical genes, which makes yeast an easy alternate for biodiesel.
As long as states that can’t grow soybeans — like Alaska — have access to the right equipment, Alper says his recipe for converting yeast can be produced at a massive scale. It can then produce everyday products such as waxes and oils, it could even power a car.
One big question is price, but Alper says it is unclear what this yeast biodiesel would cost to produce on an industry scale without an economic analysis. (According to an energy report on the Texas Comptroller website, it costs $3.37 per gallon to fill a car’s tank with soybean biodiesel in 2008.)
The market for biofuels is predicted to double over the next decade, and Alper predicts the energy industry will likely use a mix of different fuels in the future, possibly including his own concoction.
“I think we’re going to have a diversified portfolio, where we’re going to be having more regional solutions to various different problems,” Alper says. “And I hope that our (yeast biofuel) is able to provide some of that.”