By Mike Pomranz
Updated April 02, 2015
© John Kernick

For decades, we’ve all heard that the cars of the future will run on everything from electricity to happy thoughts. And yet, with the exception of about 700,000 electric cars worldwide, most of us still drive around in something that at least partially guzzles gas, no matter how much of a hybrid it may be.

One longstanding alternative to gasoline is corn-based biofuel. But the benefits of corn ethanol have been debatable at best. But new research suggests that ethanol could get a lot more environmentally friendly than it currently is. Part of ethanol’s problem stems from all the corn waste left behind. As Modern Farmer describes it, “Typically, ethanol from corn is only made from the kernels of the corn, which could be used for other purposes, like animal feed or syrup for human consumption.” Ethanol would be more compelling as a sustainable alternative if there were a way to utilize the unused parts of corn—the cob and the stalks. The problem with making fuel out of corncobs, though, has been that it has been scientifically impossible.

Corn ethanol for a car is made through the same basic process as ethanol in wine or beer—yeast break down sugars and transform them into alcohol. And sadly, there just isn’t much sugar to break down in corncobs and stalks. The yeast much prefer the sugary kernels.

But scientists at the University of East Anglia found five strains of yeast they believe could ferment the less desirable parts of corn. One strain in particular looked especially promising, and, interestingly, it comes from the same genomic lineage of yeast used to make sake.

This isn’t an instantaneous breakthrough; more research needs to be done. But if this really can transform how we make ethanol, it would be a big step in the right direction.