Chaim Weizmann’s Fermentation Invention Used for Biofuel Production in USA

Albert Einstein With Chaim Weizmann photo 1921A century-old fermentation process to transform plant material into a propellant, could eventually replace gasoline.

In 1914, thirty-five years before Chaim Weizmann (pictured center beside Einstein) would become Israel’s first president, he discovered a fermentation process for harnessing bacteria to produce large quantities of useful chemicals. For this discovery, Weizmann was called the father of industrial fermentation. The bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum was named the Weizmann organism, giving him a taste of fame long before his Israeli political career. His process of Acetone Butanol Ethanol (ABE) fermentation helped produce explosives for World War I and now a team of chemical engineers at UC Berkley are close to perfecting his process for the efficient production of biofuels.

Weizmann’s ABE process was initially used to produce acetone which was used in the World War I explosive cordite. Like Alfred Nobel and Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann might have wondered about the moral implications of inventing something which would be used as a tool of war.

But Weizmann once said,

“I trust and feel sure in my heart that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life. […] I speak of both science for its own sake and science as a means to an end.”

Dean Toste, Harvey Blanche and Douglas Clark are well on their way towards fulfilling Weizmann’s dream. Harvey Blanche explained that their variation on Weizmann’s fermentation process could efficiently convert corn, eucalyptus, sugar cane, grass and other fast-growing plants and trees into the ACE mixture. Then a catalyst developed by Dean Toste converts this mixture into a high-energy biofuel. Their results are published in Nature.

“You can take a wide variety of sugar sources – from corn, sugar cane, molasses to woody biomass or plant biomass – and turn it into a diesel product using this fermentation process,” said Harvey Blanch in an SFGate article, adding that about 90 percent of the raw material remains in the finished product, reducing the loss of carbon. “Grasses are also a possible source. Eucalyptus could also be used. Anything that’s fast-growing.”

California is expected to be the first niche market to use this new biofuel, although it would likely take about ten years to go to market.

Photo of Chaim Weizmann with Albert Einstein via Wikimedia.

About Brian Nitz

Brian remembers when a single tear dredged up a nation's guilt. The tear belonged to an Italian-American actor known as Iron-Eyes Cody, the guilt was displaced from centuries of Native American mistreatment and redirected into a new environmental awareness. A 10-year-old Brian wondered, 'What are they... No, what are we doing to this country?'From a family of engineers, farmers and tinkerers Brian's father was a physics teacher. He remembers the day his father drove up to watch a coal power plant's new scrubbers turn smoke from dirty grey-back to steamy white. Surely technology would solve every problem. But then he noticed that breathing was difficult when the wind blew a certain way. While sailing, he often saw a yellow-brown line on the horizon. The stars were beginning to disappear. Gas mileage peaked when Reagan was still president. Solar panels installed in the 1970s were torn from roofs as they were no longer cost-effective to maintain. Racism, public policy and low oil prices transformed suburban life and cities began to sprawl out and absorb farmland. Brian only began to understand the root causes of "doughnut cities" when he moved to Ireland in 2001 and watched history repeat itself.Brian doesn't think environmentalism is 'rocket science', but understanding how to apply it within a society requires wisdom and education. In his travels through Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, Brian has learned that great ideas come from everywhere and that sharing mistakes is just as important as sharing ideas.

One thought on “Chaim Weizmann’s Fermentation Invention Used for Biofuel Production in USA”

  1. Charles Waller says:

    Hemp cannabis would be a good source of raw material if the key characteristic is “fast-growing”.

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