New Zealand's photogenic forests made it a natural for filming The Lord Of The Rings, but it takes more than an occasional blockbuster to make a dent in the isolated nation's energy bills. Last year, says The Economist , its forest industry exported 290 million dollars worth of lumber, but its imported fossil fuel bill came to 4.5 billion.
So taking a page from biotech wizard Saruman's diversification into Orc exports , the Kiwis are contemplating turning to woodland molecular biology to make up the difference. There is no lack of termites in the Southern hemisphere, and researchers down under are combing the insects stomach enzymes for clues as to how to efficiently digest and ferment cellulose into fuel ethanol. Instead of quaffing Green Dragon ale , Forest Rangers are hard at work investigating which fast growing trees can best turn lands too poor for pasture into a rich source of renewable biomass fit for fermentation.
So while sheep may safely graze , trees had better be on the lookout for agribusiness merger and acquisition men.Two New Zealand Crown Research Institutes, Scion and AgResearch are partnering with Diversa to investigate the feasibility of producing enough "Treethanol" to fuel all the vehicles in New Zealand.
Auckland's BioJoule start-up is planning a pilot plant to produce ethanol from willows coppiced (cut back annually ) to yield chips to be turned into ethanol. This would produce two valuable by-products: unsulphonated lignin, a polymer, and xylose, the wood sugar used in dyeing and diet foods. Selling them should enable ethanol production for a direct cost of $ 1.13 per gallon , cheaper than American corn ($1.44) and only a quarter a gallon more than Brazilian sugar-cane alcohol.