When most people think of termites, the reaction is predictably negative. After all, not only do they damage homes and bore holes through books, but they have a certain ugliness that even ants do not possess. However, this is another one of those times where a particularly formidable and vexing problem of civilizational significance meets a countering force from just about the last source anyone would expect. The loathed termite might actually attone for all the cumulative economic damage it has caused to human society over the centuries.
Both MIT Technology Review and BusinessWeek have, in the last 30 days, featured articles detailing how a termite's ability to digest wood is due to certain microbes in the digestive tract, which contain a gene that can be extracted and harnessed into processes to create cellulostic ethanol out of agricultural waste for a fraction of the current cost.
America's forests, agricultural waste, and 40 to 60 million acres of prairie grass could supply 100 billion gallons or more of fuel per year—while slashing greenhouse gas emissions. That would replace more than half the 150 billion gallons of gasoline now used annually, greatly reducing oil imports. It "will happen much faster than most people think," predicts Michigan State biochemical engineer Bruce E. Dale. "And it will be enormous, remaking our national energy policy and transforming agriculture."
Recent work has lowered the cost of this step thirtyfold, to about 50 cents per gallon of ethanol produced. "We now are not far away from the goal of 10 cents per gallon," says Glenn E. Nedwin, chief scientific officer at Dyadic.
Always remember that 1.5 units of ethanol are required to produce the same energy as 1 unit of gasoline. So far, US ethanol production has amounted to merely 7 billion gallons (enough to replace just 3% of gasoline consumption) in 2006, is barely cost-competitive with gasoline even with the agricultural subsidies the federal government has provided, and is heavily dependent on using corn which is also needed in the food industry. But if the termite enzyme can create a process that scales up to the extent of producing 100 billion gallons a year for under $1 per gallon (already a more modest goal than what the scientists in the article are striving for) out of otherwise unused biomass, we just might tackle oil dependence, greenhouse gas emissions, and the trade deficit simultaneously.
The progress they make between now and 2010 will enable us to determine if this is on track to becoming a technological reality by 2015.
Update : There may also be a way to create Ethanol from trash.