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Scientists create a sugar-based biofuel that could replace petrol; company stores clients' white blood cells to rebuild their immune system and fight disease.

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Friday 22 June 2007



FRAN KELLY: Well, yesterday on the program we heard that world oil prices are on the rise again with predictions that the price of crude could reach a new record high of US$85 a barrel within the next few months.


Well now scientists say that they've found a new fuel which some time in the future could be used as an effective replacement for the ever-increasing costly petrol. It’s sugar-based.


Chris Smith our regular science correspondent joins us now from Cambridge.


Chris good morning.




FRAN KELLY: Now Chris, we’ve all heard of sweet light crude, in fact our sugar growers are banking on it. It’s still regarded though, by many, as ‘petrol light’ and perhaps a little not quite up to scratch and not quite unreliable. But this breakthrough might change all that?


CHRIS SMITH: It could do because when people say biofuel the first thing they think of is something like ethanol of course. But when you look at ethanol it’s actually very difficult to produce, it time consuming to make large amounts of it and when you have made large amounts of it you’ve then got to clean it up, you’ve got to distil it to produce a high concentration of it and that uses huge amounts of energy. And when you deduct that from the equation it’s not so energy efficient after all.


But there’s a new piece of research been published in Nature this week by Jim Dumesic and his colleagues. They’re in the States at Wisconsin-Madison and they’ve come up with a very clever catalytic way to take the sugar fructose—which is very similar to glucose—and crack it effectively into a new molecule which is called DMF or dimethylfuran. And this really packs a powerful punch, almost on par with petrol actually, it’s got an octane level of 120. It’s water repellent unlike ethanol which quite likes water and the problem with ethanol is it soaks up water and then rots your engine. This hates water so that won’t happen. And it’s very quick to make because it’s a catalytic process, your not having to ferment things and rely on yeast to do stuff for you which is slow.


So they reckon this could make a big difference in the marketplace.


FRAN KELLY: But why is it sort of better than ethanol? And is ethanol as sort of … we seem to have big question marks over ethanol, I mean, do we need to?


CHRIS SMITH: Well the thing with ethanol is because it soaks up water and therefore might damage the engine and also is so costly in energy terms to make, it means that you have to invest huge amounts of energy to get back not much more energy. So when you do the chemical sums you find that ethanol isn’t as good for the environment as it could be.


But you could take all of the biomass —the waste plant material, waste food material and other processes—that yield things like fructose and subject it to the chemical pathways that these scientists have come up with. And I mean it’s very, very simple; all they do is put some table salt and some hydrochloric acid in with the fructose, boil it up and you get something which is stripped of a couple of it’s oxygen atoms. You then pass this with some hydrogen over a catalyst with copper and the metal ruthenium in it and this strips some more oxygen atoms and you get this DMF fuel, very quick.


FRAN KELLY: That’s completely simple isn’t it? It’s like a home distillery.


CHRIS SMITH: It is. You could make this in your … in fact with a home chemistry set you could actually make this. But the thing is it’s very scaleable which means that you could take a waste product and without too much energy input, produce something which has an energy density on par with petrol, which is good news.


Now obviously there are tests to be done. They’ve got to show that this stuff burns cleanly, it will run well in an engine and that you’d probably want to run this as a blend, you wouldn’t want to run it as a unique fuel on it’s own to start with. But at the end of the day it’s certainly got a lot more promise probably than ethanol has.


FRAN KELLY: And Chris, a British company is offering to store people’s healthy blood cells in case you get sick in the future. Now this is certainly banking the good stuff, isn’t it?


CHRIS SMITH: Well this sort of is a tide of public enthusiasm for storing things up for a rainy day. We’ve seen umbilical cord blood stem-cell banking and now this company Lifeforce, they’re actually a multi-national but they’ve got a US and a UK operation.


What they offer is the opportunity to have your immune system frozen in time if you like and stored for you on ice—quite literally, it’s in liquid nitrogen—for many, many years. We know cells can remain viable for a hundred years or so at least on the basis of models we’ve got. And so what you can do is have your immune system banked in this way and when you get sick later, say you have cancer, you have to have chemotherapy or something and this would weaken your immune system. You can have your cells that you banked earlier re-infused.


And what the company do is they stimulate the cells with growth factors to expand their numbers so you have whole legions of these white blood cells which are your immune system, tailor-made to you of course. And you can then re-infuse that into you subsequently and restore your immune system to what it was about 25 years ago.


And Del DelaRonde who’s actually the co-founder of the company said: we give people back the pristine immune system they had 25 years ago with one of these infusions. But it’s not cheap though; you have to cough up for it.


FRAN KELLY: Well I can see a rush of blood coming on, so to speak.


Chris thankyou very much for joining us.


CHRIS SMITH: Thanks Fran.