Before we get to the alligators, here's a little background on the search for alternative energy. We know that burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) is not sustainable, resulting in health-compromising pollution and greenhouse gas-induced climate change, not to mention our dependence on foreign countries for our supply and the limited quantities of accessible fossil fuels available for our use that are left on the planet. So it's no surprise that the search for alternative energy sources is on.
Solar and wind power are two renewable energy technologies that are currently being used (and should be expanded) that most people already know about. Biofuels are increasingly becoming the focus of researchers looking for the energy source of the future.
Biofuels are fuels created from living things and can be more sustainable and renewable than fossil fuels. Corn-based fuels like ethanol are already widely used, as well as "biodiesel" created from soybean oil, including recycled oil that was first used for frying food. Switchgrass has also proven to be a promising potential sources of biodiesel (but not perfect).
New research has uncovered a rather odd form of biodiesel: alligator fat. Researchers have reported in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research that alligator fat can be converted into a high quality biodiesel. But what would prompt them to pick such an unlikely material for their research? Believe it or not, there's a lot of alligator fat out there that is currently going to waste.
Alligators are native to the American South from Florida west to Texas and in coastal areas as far north as the Carolinas. Unsustainable hunting and habitat destruction brought this large American crocodilian to the brink of extinction by the middle of the last century. Fortunately, through good conservation practices and strong laws such as the Endangered Species Act, alligators were protected and have made a recovery that's nothing short of amazing. Alligators were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1987 and today their populations remain healthy, making them an endangered species success story.
Unlike many other wildlife species that are (or were) on the brink of extinction, alligators readily breed in captivity. Today, alligators are raised for their skins and meat in captive breeding facilities called alligator farms. An estimated 15 millions pounds of alligator fat is annually thrown away as a byproduct of these farm operations. With that much wasted raw material, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to figure out a use for it.
Whether or not alligator fat becomes a fuel source of the future remains to be seen. While 15 million pounds of fat is a lot, it could only supply a tiny percentage of the fuel Americans consume. There are also animal welfare questions and the potential pollution caused by large alligator farm operations. But if nothing else, this discovery shows that sometimes you have to look in odd places to make new scientific discoveries.
In the meantime, check out this video about an alligator's ability to use its lungs to stealthily move underwater and stalk its prey.
Photo by wwarby via Flickr Creative Commons.
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