Beneficial Termites, An Oil Alternative for the Hydrogen Economy

August 28, 2009

TERMITES AS beneficial insects? Seems preposterous when Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) cause billions of dollars of structural damage annually in the U.S. And termites are not found in the catalogs of Rincon-Vitova and other insectaries selling beneficial insects that minimize pesticide use by biologically destroying pests. But back in his Nobel Prize-winning days as a University of California, Berkeley, physicist, U.S. Dept. of Energy Secretary Steven Chu looked deeply inside termites and saw microbial biorefineries producing hydrogen gas and a potential solution to America’s almost addictive dependency on foreign oil imports.

Global warming worriers might think this a bit odd, as collectively the world’s termites emit an estimated 15% of global methane, a greenhouse gas and natural gas energy fuel. But, oddly enough, the eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) and Formosan subterranean termites dining on wood structures in the USA are more environmentally correct creatures, eschewing methane and emitting valuable hydrogen gas instead. This hydrogen gas, if produced in bio-refineries powered by termite technologies, could replace traditional carbon-based petroleum fuels and reduce oil dependence.

In chemical terms: For every mole (a chemical unit of measurement) of wood glucose consumed, subterranean termites excrete 2-4 moles of hydrogen gas. Just like cows, termites have an array of gut microbes aiding digestion of plant cellulose. Microbial prospectors searching the termite gut instead of rainforest jungles, have discovered previously unknown gut microbes converting wood products into hydrogen gas. Harnessed in bioreactors, hydrogen gas produced by termites and their gut microbes can be the basis for a new hydrogen economy as the power source for pollution-free vehicles.

Mississippi State University’s Zhong Sun and others reporting at Entomological Society of America annual meetings note that termites and their gut protozoa are the best biological hydrogen production technology known. In part, this is because termites can convert 74-99% of cellulose substrate into fermentable sugars. Thus, one gram (0.035 oz) of wood in a termite biorefinery can generate 10 liters (1 quart) of hydrogen gas.

Onward to the hydrogen economy, with subterranean termite gas in the automobile fuel tank.