Fuel Found in Old Newspapers

August 25, 2011 5:45 AM

Kathryn Hobgood Ray

Here’s one way that old-fashioned newsprint beat the Internet: Tulane University scientists have discovered a novel bacterial strain, dubbed “TU-103,” that 
uses paper to produce butanol, a biofuel that serves as a substitute for 
gasoline. The researchers are currently experimenting with old editions of The Times-Picayune 
newspaper with great success.

David Mullin, Harshad Velankar, and Hailee Rask

Tulane has applied for a patent for a method to produce the biofuel butanol from organic material, a process developed by associate professor David Mullin, right, postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar, center, and undergraduate student Hailee Rask. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

TU-103 is the first bacterial strain from nature that produces 
butanol directly from cellulose, an organic compound, says David Mullin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology.

“Cellulose is found in all green plants and is the most abundant organic material on earth. Converting it into butanol is the dream of many,” says Harshad Velankar, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Mullin’s lab. “In the United States alone, at 
least 323 million tons of cellulosic materials that could be used to produce 
butanol are thrown out each year.”

Mullin’s lab first 
identified TU-103 in animal droppings, cultivated it and developed a method 
for using it to produce butanol. A patent is pending on the process. 

“Most important about this discovery is TU-103’s ability to produce butanol directly 
from cellulose,” says Mullin.

He adds that TU-103 is the only known butanol-producing clostridial strain that can grow and produce butanol in the presence of oxygen, which kills other 
butanol-producing bacteria. Having to produce butanol in an oxygen-free space increases 
the costs of production.

As a biofuel, butanol is superior to ethanol 
(commonly produced from corn sugar) because it can readily fuel existing 
motor vehicles without any modifications to the engine. It also can be transported through existing fuel pipelines, is less corrosive and contains more energy than ethanol, theoretically resulting in improved 

“This discovery could reduce the cost to produce bio-butanol,” says Mullin. “In addition to possible 
savings on the price per gallon as a fuel, bio-butanol produced from 
cellulose would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog emissions in 
comparison to gasoline.” The innovative process also could have a positive impact on landfill waste.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000