On a blackboard, it looks so simple: Take a plant and extract the cellulose. Add some enzymes and convert the cellulose molecules into sugars. Ferment the sugar into alcohol. Then distill the alcohol into fuel. One, two, three, four — and we're powering our cars with lawn cuttings, wood chips, and prairie grasses instead of Middle East oil.
Unfortunately, passing chemistry class doesn't mean acing economics. Scientists have long known how to turn trees into ethanol, but doing it profitably is another matter. We can run our cars on lawn cuttings today; we just can't do it at a price people are willing to pay.
The problem is cellulose. Found in plant cell walls, it's the most abundant naturally occurring organic molecule on the planet, a potentially limitless source of energy. But it's a tough molecule to break down. Bacteria and other microorganisms use specialized enzymes to do the job, scouring lawns, fields, and forest floors, hunting out cellulose and dining on it. Evolution h...