That's right. You read that correctly. They're cookin' up using cow poop. Although they're not baking brownies, what they're making is almost as tasty; vanilla and gasoline, just not together.
More precisely, the Japanese scientists from the International Medical Center of Japan have managed to produce vanillin, the main organic scent and flavor component in vanilla. Most synthetic vanillin is currently produced using lignin, a chemical present in the cell walls of plants. Since cows consume an enormous amount of plant material, their feces contain high concentrations of lignin in the form of mostly indigestible cell walls. Using a one-hour heating and pressuring process, the lignin can be extracted and converted to vanillin. Amazingly enough, producing vanillin from the lignin present in cow manure is less than half as expensive as any other method. The cow has already done most of the work in extracting the lignin from plants. Best of all, once the lignin has been converted to vanillin, the processed feces can still be used as fertilizer.
Vanillin extracted in this manner couldn't be used in food (thank the gods!), but would instead be used to scent products such as candles, soap, and air fresheners.
Even more exciting is the recent news that a separate group of Japanese scientists from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have developed a process that enables them to extract 0.042 ounces of gasoline from every 3.5 ounces of moo poop, although the details given so far have been sketchy given the high demand for such technology in oil-poor Japan.
I might hesitate to wash my face with vanilla soap or scent my house with vanilla pooppourri made using cow manure. But, given the world's dwindling supply of gasline and the need to develop alternative sources of energy, I'll certainly be first in line to gas up at the new and improved Chevron. It really doesn't get much more "alternative" than this.
You've got to hand it to those wacky Japanese scientists. Now that they're broken the cow poop code, can advanced battle mecha and genetically engineered super-martial artists be far behind? I certainly hope not.
All hail our future overlords.