Perez says that he is confident that the magnetic fields will “more than pay for themselves,” offsetting the cost of the magnets and their power supply. Applications for patents on the technique have been filed–patents that Perez believes will be applicable to processes that use feedstocks other than sugarcane, such as corn and biomass, to produce ethanol. But Perez acknowledges that more research is needed before the magnetic effect can be applied commercially. “Studies in pilot plants and on the industrial scale need to be carried out to conclude a more complete analysis of the impact on the process cost,” he says.
Hermann Berg, a biochemist at the Saxonian Academy of Sciences, in Leipzig, Germany, says that the Brazilian researchers’ results corroborate evidence that he and others have found for magnetic fields’ ability to boost bacterial and yeast metabolism. “I believe that it works,” says Berg.
James Weaver, associate director of the Biomedical Engineering Center at Harvard and MIT’s joint Division of Health Sciences and Technology, counsels caution while scientists sort out the causes of the increased yields. “This is a controversial area,” he says.
But Weaver adds that there is a lot of research under way that bears watching. For example, he points to a report published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that alternating, low-intensity electric fields can stop tumor cells from dividing by disrupting the “molecular machinery” of cell division. (Electric fields attract charged molecules in much the same way that magnets attract metallic particles.) That work, led by researchers at Haifa-based Israeli biotech firm NovoCure, is now in phase III clinical trials as a treatment for patients with glioblastoma multiforme–the most common form of brain cancer.
The fermentation boost, too, could be due to an electric field induced by the alternating magnetic field, but Weaver believes that all such hypotheses are pure speculation. “Plainly, the effect is very large. It’s very interesting, but it’s hard to say anything beyond that,” he says. “It’s the proverbial ‘It raises lots of questions but at this time [offers] no answers.’”