UMass Scientists on the Prowl for “Trash to Fuel” Bugs

A team of researchers at UMass Amherst is spending the summer collecting mud from backyards, swimming holes and compost piles. They’ve partnered with a North Carolina based recycling company in search of a microorganism that can turn household waste into liquid fuel like ethanol.

Jeff Blanchard and Maddy Coppi are with the TIMBR institute — UMass’ center for biofuels research. Coppi says ReCommunity Recycling is granting the partnership more than 600-thousand dollars to hunt for beneficial microbes. She demonstrates the “glove bag,” purchased thanks to the grant.

“This is the air lock, it’s kind of like the Star-Trek air lock. Because you can put your material in here and then we have little gloves we can put on our hands so we can pick things up and move them around — like petri plates. And then when you turn it on what it does is suck out the small amount of oxygen that leaks in.”

Coppi says most microbes capable of producing biofuels are very sensitive to oxygen. But she says the team can cultivate whole microbe colonies from a teaspoon-sized sample of backyard soil using this anaerobic chamber. She says once the team isolates dominant microbes from each community it can then experiment with feeding “star” microbes raw waste.

Blanchard says ReCommunity just shipped the team a big box of substrate — that is, microbe food.

“This is what the microbes will turn into ethanol — is this fiber material that’s all ground up. It’s almost ground to a state that it feels like dust. And it’s something that you’d expect to be all over your floor. But you can see little bits and pieces of white paper — there’s green and yellow and white specs.”

Blanchard says so far the organisms the team has isolated take around a week to produce ethanol from the substrate. But he says the team hopes to find an organism that can digest waste and excrete fuel in fewer than five days.