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The secret to optimize the development processes of wood-based biofuels could be found in the depths of the sea.
Given the most recent estimates, global pressures have increased for urgent action to curb climate change. In this line, there are many efforts that are being made to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. One of the best strategies to achieve this revolves around renewable energy sources, such as biofuels. In this case, the secret to developing wood-based biofuels could be hidden in the depths of the sea. Specifically, after analyzing the digestive process of a crustacean that feeds on wood, a team of researchers obtained clues that could be key to turning wood into a biofuel in an environmentally friendly way.
The Limnóridos These crustaceans keep the secret for the development of biofuels in their digestive process The limnóridos, also called gribbles, are small marine invertebrates that are part of the family of marine isopod crustaceans. Throughout the evolution, these small crustaceans acquired an important ecological role, since they are in charge of eating the abundant supplies of wood that are dragged towards the sea from the estuaries of the rivers. In fact, the limnóridos, in spite of their small size, can be a threat, since they eat the wood of the boats and the docks, causing important damages.
However, until now, the process of digestion of these crustaceans was a mystery for scientists. In order to understand the mechanisms from which limnóridos break the high-strength coating that surrounds the sugar polymers that make up the wood, called lignin, a team of researchers attached to the University of York, was devoted to studying the intestine of these small animals. In this way, it was discovered that the hemocyanins, the proteins responsible for the blue coloration of the blood of invertebrates, are of utmost importance to extract the aforementioned sugars from the wood. Specifically, hemocyanins are proteins that transport oxygen through the blood of invertebrates; its role is comparable to hemoglobin in the rest of the animals.
However, while hemoglobin binds to oxygen by associating with iron atoms, giving the blood a red hue, the hemoacins do the same with copper atoms, producing blue tones in the blood. This discovery could translate into the development of low-carbon, low-polluting wood-based biofuels. This discovery could favor the development of low carbon biofuels
Oxygen is a highly reactive chemical element that Limnóridos use to break the lignin bonds that hold the wood together. In particular, it was discovered that the reaction of wood to hemocyanins causes more than twice the amount of sugar to be released; this resembles the expensive thermochemical pretreatments currently used in the biofuels industry, but more simply and cost-effectively.
In addition to this, the sterility of the digestive system of these crustaceans makes the process of studying their digestive processes easier, in comparison with other animals that feed on wood, such as termites, which depend on their intestinal microbiome to digest food. This, according to the researchers, could be useful to reduce the amounts of energy necessary for the previous treatment of the wood, in order to convert it into biofuel.
In addition, the biomass of woody plants is the resource of renewable carbon of greater abundance in the Earth, and its use in the industry of the biofuels does not represent a conflict with the world food security, as it could be the use of the corn. Therefore, the researchers conclude that this discovery represents a step forward in the search for cheaper and sustainable mechanisms to convert wood into a low carbon biofuel. Thus, in the future, it represents a feasible alternative to replace the use of highly polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.