Orange Peels, Newspapers May Lead to Cheaper, Cleaner Ethanol Fuel

New research turns fruit peels and other waste products into ethanol.

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Scientists may have just made the breakthrough of a lifetime, turning discarded fruit peels and other throwaways into cheap, clean fuel to power the world’s vehicles.

University of Central Florida professor Henry Daniell has developed a groundbreaking way to produce ethanol from waste products such as orange peels and newspapers. His approach is greener and less expensive than the current methods available to run vehicles on cleaner fuel -- and his goal is to relegate gasoline to a secondary fuel.

Daniell’s breakthrough can be applied to several non-food products throughout the United States, including sugarcane, switchgrass and straw.

“This could be a turning point where vehicles could use this fuel as the norm for protecting our air and environment for future generations,” he said.

Daniell’s technique uses plant-derived enzyme cocktails to break down orange peels and other waste materials into sugar, which is then fermented into ethanol.

The most popular source used now is corn starch, which is fermented and converted into ethanol. But ethanol derived from corn produces more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline does. Ethanol created using Daniell’s approach produces much lower greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline or electricity.

There’s also an abundance of waste products that could be used without reducing the world’s food supply or driving up food prices. In Florida alone, discarded orange peels could create about 200 million gallons of ethanol each year, Daniell said.

More research is needed before Daniell’s findings, published this month in the highly regarded Plant Biotechnology Journal, can move from his laboratory to the market. But other scientists conducting research in biofuels describes the early results as promising.

Daniell’s team cloned genes from wood-rotting fungi or bacteria and produced enzymes in tobacco plants. Producing these enzymes in tobacco instead of manufacturing synthetic versions could reduce the cost of production by a thousand times, which means the cost of making ethanol should be significantly reduced, Daniell said. 

Tobacco was chosen as an ideal system for enzyme production because of several reasons.  It is not a food crop, and an estimated 40 metric tons of biomass – or “bioenergy” – are produced annually in each acre of tobacco plants. Enzyme production also would provide an alternate use for this crop and potentially decrease its use for smoking.

Daniell’s team includes Dheeraj Verma, Anderson Kanagaraj, Shuangxia Jin, Nameirakpam Singh and Pappachan E. Kolattukudy in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at UCF’s College of Medicine. Genes for pectinase enzyme were cloned in Kolattukudy’s laboratory. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the research.

Daniell joined UCF’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences in 1998. His research led to the formation of the university’s first biotechnology company. Daniell also became only the 14th American in the last 222 years to be elected the Italian National Academy of Sciences. In 2007 he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

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