for National Geographic News
Tiny microbes that live inside termites may one day help cure the world's energy woes, according to scientists.
The researchers are trying to understand how bacteria that help termites digest wood and other plants release the hydrogen that's trapped in the material.
"We don't understand the full details of how the process occurs," said Jared Leadbetter, an environmental microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
"But once we learn more about it, many things become possible."
For example, he says, biotech engineers could mass-produce the tiny microbes for hydrogen production on an industrial scale.
The hydrogen could then power hydrogen fuel cells, a type of battery that emits only water.
But reaching large-scale production, Leadbetter cautioned, "is a pretty tall order." It would depend on how well the research is funded and how it progresses over the coming years, he said.
Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed there are hurdles to overcome, but he said the potential applications are "very positive."
"Neat stuff can happen in this area," he said.
Kammen imagines a day when "little digesters"a termite germ-derived technologysit in people's garages and process piles of woody waste to produce enough hydrogen to power cars and homes.
The concept would mean no more trips to the gas station or having to pay the electric company for power. (Read "The End of Cheap Oil.")
"I think that's the natural way to go long term," Kammen said.
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