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Plant potential in the pipeline

Think for a moment about what you have done so far today -- made a cup of tea, driven to work, sent an e-mail or text?

Each of those activities is dependent on oil, from fuel for transport to the plastic parts of your kettle, car, keyboard and mobile. Development of our high-impact consumer lifestyles is accelerating even as fossil fuel supplies are dwindling, and the environmental impact of their use becomes ever more apparent.

But plants, rather than fossil fuels, can provide our future energy, fuel and domestic needs and today an international group of scientists will reveal how. The EPOBIO project, led by CNAP, a research centre at the University of York, is releasing its first series of reports on the endless possibilities of plants.

The renewable revolution

Plants offer a sustainable tool to achieve the renewable revolution. They are ‘green factories’ using energy from sunlight to make biofuel, bioplastics and a range of other products cheaply and in large quantities. The reports, issued today by the EPOBIO project, present detailed analyses of how plant products and plants themselves can be used to replace products made using oil.

EPOBIO co-ordinator and CNAP Director Professor Dianna Bowles, said: “Two key threats to society are our dependence on finite fossil fuels and climate change.Plants have the potential to provide us with everything now made using petroleum, creating a sustainable society for the future and addressing immediate concerns such as energy costs, security of supply and our impact on the environment.”

Key issues:

The need for alternative sources of natural rubber:

- natural rubber is a strategic commodity, irreplaceable by synthetic alternatives, for many of its applications, e.g. heavy duty tyres for SUVs, trucks and aeroplanes.

- the incidence of allergic reactions to proteins in natural rubber (latex) is increasing. Natural rubber is used to make protective medical products, posing a potential risk to both patients and medical workers.

- the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is at risk from a fungal disease which has already decimated large-scale rubber production in South America.

- predictions of future shortages in supply

The potential of using plants as an energy supply:

- biofuels, power, chemicals, materials and fibres can be all made from plants rather than oil in integrated processing systems called biorefineries.

- the use of plant material reduces greenhouse gas emissions while guaranteeing security of supply.

- the plant material and processing method needs to be optimised to increase yield and quality of the end products and reduce energy and chemical inputs.

The potential of producing lubricants from plants:

- plant oils have similar structures and properties to mineral oils and can be used in many of the applications now dependent on mineral oils.

- wax esters have excellent properties as lubricants but their use has previously been limited by the high cost of extraction from jojoba seeds.

- the low cost production of wax esters from the non-food oil crop Crambe abyssinica will provide a sustainable supply of lubricants to use in engine, transmission and hydraulic fluids.

The EPOBIO project involves a partnership between experts in plant science, environmental impact assessment, economic analysis and social expectations and combines these strengths to identify the plant-based products which offer greatest benefit to society within the next 10-15 years.

David Garner | alfa
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