Frustrated Scientists Turn to Panda Poop in Search of Bio-fuels

August 30, 2011 12:48 PM

(credit: CBS)

DENVER (CBS4) – The waste of one of the world’s most endangered animals may hold the key to producing biofuels. The potency of the discovery had scientists talking about it at a major chemistry conference in Denver on Monday.

CBS4′s Kathy Walsh was at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society for all the fuss about panda feces. It turns out panda droppings could solve one of the major hurdles to producing biofuels.

They are adorable and endangered. Every giant panda birth is a worldwide wonder.

“It’s probably the most pleasant fecal material to actually work with,” Dr. Ashli Brown said.

Brown and grad student Candace Williams discovered something amazing in panda excrement. They analyzed the fresh feces of bamboo-eating pandas at the Memphis Zoo. They found microbes in panda droppings break down super-tough plant materials — grasses, corn stalks and wood chips.

“Once you have the bacteria you can grow them outside of the intestinal track of the panda,” Brown said.

Eventually the scientists want to try engineering the digestive enzymes on a large scale so plant waste could be used to make biofuels, instead of relying on food crops like corn.

“Being able to produce a biofuel from two waste products is pretty incredible,” Williams said.

Recycling animal feces is not a new phenomenon. Statues have been made from panda poop and there are elephant dung paper products and compost.

At the Denver Zoo they’re hoping to use thousands of pounds of animal waste with thousands of pounds of human garbage to power 20 percent of their energy needs. It’s called gasification. A special machine will turn the trash and poop into power.

“There is a future in feces. As you know a lot of animals produce a lot of waste and taking that resource and putting it in something to create a clean renewable energy is an exciting process,” Jennifer Hale with the Denver Zoo said.

The beauty of panda waste is that it could make biofuels cheaper to produce. That could expand their use and help cut dependency on foreign oil. Commercial production is probably years away.