Could bugs fuel your car?

Last week, Penn State entomology graduate students met for journal club and Loren Rivera-Vega led a discussion about a possible alternative form of fuel: insects!

BeeRhagionid2-XL_awIMG_2641a2blue morpho lepidoptera

Biofuel is the use of biological material (living things like plants) to make fuel, in place of traditional forms. The demand for fuels is increasing to run our cars, heat homes and manufacture various items, so biofuels are being considered more seriously as an alternative fuel source. Also, biofuel is an attractive option, because it’s a renewable resource, whereas fossil fuels are a finite resource. When we talk about biofuel, most people are referring to corn, although various oils and sugarcane have been used by other countries as well.

Don't try this at home

Don’t try this at home

The use of corn as biofuel has been criticized, because we also use corn for food and corn grown for biofuel drives up food prices in a world that already has problems with food security. Growing corn for biofuel also takes up farmland that could be used to grow food needed to feed humans or livestock. Various people have crunched numbers that show we have to grow a lot of corn to make a small amount of fuel. Corn doesn’t appear to be an efficient source of biofuel, but still a large portion of our corn crops are grown to make biofuel (40%!).

So, this article questions: “What else can we use to produce biofuel?”

manure

Now that’s a lot of manure!

Insects, perhaps! Some insects naturally feed on and break down plant and animal waste, releasing nutrients back into the ground. Recently, researchers have found that the materials you get after waste breakdown by insects could be collected and used as biofuel . Focus has been placed on waste because we have a lot of it, including leftover plant materials from farming, or manure from livestock farms (we already don’t know what to do with all the poop!). Other scientists have ground up insects and successfully extracted grease or fat as starting materials to make biofuels.

One question that the journal club kept coming back to was: What’s the actual feasibility of using insects as a biofuel source? Things we’d have to consider include:

  • regulatory issues (like insect containment and quality control)
  • energy efficiency (energy input versus output)
  • social barriers (would people be ok with an insect factory near their home?)
  • economic feasibility (cost of raising insects, profits).

So, could insects be used to fuel our cars? Maybe in the future, but research on this topic is at its infancy and more work needs to be done.

What other things do you think we would need to consider or know?

About britdodson

Over several years as a research scientist, I’ve realized that we fail to communicate research in fun and exciting ways. We’re often misquoted, not due to journalist errors, but because our scientific language is complicated and riddled with jargon. I want to improve my communication abilities with this blog by using techniques from creative writing and applying them to nonfiction scientific writing. But, in order to be skilled at writing one must practice (so says writers like Stephen King). This blog will serve as my first venture into science writing. I'm very passionate about entomology, infectious diseases and human health, so my posts will initially focus on those topics.
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