BOZEMAN — Textbooks teach that crude oil was created deep underground over millions of years by heat and pressure that turned dinosaur-era plants into petroleum.
Scientist Gary Strobel is challenging that conventional wisdom.
Strobel says that fossil fuels may have actually been made biologically, thanks to fungi — the same kingdom of organisms that gives us mushrooms, penicillin, mold for cheese and yeast for bread, wine and beer.
If Strobel is right, and if he can find the right fungi, we may someday be able to make our own fuel oil, and make it fast.
“We’re saying we can do it in a few weeks, in the right conditions,” Strobel said. “It probably doesn’t take 100 million years to make. Everyone says oil is a critical resource that’s not renewable. I’m saying it is.”
On a recent morning, Strobel demonstrated his experiment in his lab in the Plant Biosciences Building at Montana State University, the institution for which he has worked for 50 years. At 74, he has been officially retired for seven years, and next month he’s slated to lose his lab space at MSU. But Strobel loves his work and still approaches it with boyish enthusiasm.
While reporters for the National Science Foundation, local TV station and newspaper looked on, Strobel and mechanical engineer Eric Booth demonstrated a contraption they invented called the Paleobiosphere.
It attempts to mimic the Montana environment of 70 million years ago that made crude oil possible in the first place, as Strobel explained in a paper published in April in the scientific journal Biotechnology Letters.
The contraption is somewhat like a pressure cooker. Into it Strobel has placed leaves from sycamore, aspen and maple trees, which lived millions of years ago. To the leaves, he has added a fungus found on a lime tree in Florida.
To find the right kind of fungus, Strobel asked MSU’s famed paleontology Jack Horner where in the United States to find conditions most like prehistoric tropical Montana, and Florida was a top choice.
First the contraption douses the leaves with water for a few days, to mimic a rainforest and leach out the tannins that prevent fungi growth. The leaves sit on a bed of bentonite shale from eastern Montana’s oil country.
As the fungus grows and digests the leaves, Strobel said, it turns the sugars, starches and cellulose into new compounds — including five hydrocarbons that are some of the main ingredients in diesel fuel.
The hydrocarbons are absorbed by the shale, which acts like a sponge, or emitted as gases into the air and captured by a stainless steel trap that Booth invented.
After three weeks, the contraption is opened up, the leaves come out nice and rotted, and the scientists can measure and analyze the hydrocarbons. Strobel said he’s tried the resulting compound in his motorcycle, and it works.
As tantalizing as the fungi-fuel idea sounds, it’s far from ready for prime time.
A few years ago Strobel was excited about a fungus from South America that produced diesel compounds. MSU received a $2 million NSF grant to conduct a detailed study, and later received grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories near Berkeley, Calif.
That fungus worked in the lab, but couldn’t be scaled up to produce diesel compounds on a commercial size, Strobel said.
So now is Strobel onto something big, or tilting at windmills?
“I think this one will work,” Strobel said.
Entrepreneur Bryan Blatt is so excited about the potential, he has started a fledgling company called Endophytics in MSU’s Innovation Campus to try to make Strobel’s ideas into commercial products.
In addition to making fuel from agricultural waste, Blatt said the fungi could create “green chemicals,” which could be even more valuable than fuel.
Brent Peyton, an MSU professor of chemical and biological engineering and lead researcher on the NSF grant, said when penicillin was first discovered it didn’t produce much antibiotic, but today it produces thousands of times more medicine. In the same way, it may be possible to produce large quantities of fungi-fuel someday. And there are thousands of fungi out in nature that no one has looked at yet, Peyton said.
Jason Raymond, an assistant professor at Arizona State University familiar with Strobel’s work, wrote that if the microbe process could be “domesticated” and scaled up, “they could very well redefine our strategies for fossil fuel utilization.”
Helge Zieler, a plant researcher with a California genomics company, wrote that the Texas oilman who invented fracking was once dismissed.
“Gary is a visionary with a stellar track record,” Zieler wrote of Strobel. “He has been right on many things before, and I would not bet against him on this project.”