Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


‘Unzipping’ poplars’ biofuel potential


What began 20 years ago as an innovation to improve paper industry processes and dairy forage digestibility may now open the door to a much more energy- and cost-efficient way to convert biomass into fuel.

The research, which appears in the current issue of Science, focuses on enhancing poplar trees so they can break down easier and thus improving their viability as a biofuel.

Scientists have unzipped poplars' biofuel potential. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

The long-term efforts and teamwork involved to find this solution can be described as a rare, top-down approach to engineering plants for digestibility, said Curtis Wilkerson, Michigan State University plant biologist and the lead author.

“By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product,” said Wilkerson, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist. “Poplars are dense, easy to store and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel.”

... more about:
»biomass »clear »crops »exotic »genes »monomers »poplar »produce

The idea to engineer biomass for easier degradation first took shape in the mid-1990s in the lab of John Ralph, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and GLBRC plants leader. Ralph’s group was looking to reduce energy usage in the paper pulping process by more efficiently removing lignin – the polymer that gives plant cell walls their sturdiness – from trees.

s approach had clear benefits for the biofuels industry as well. The difficulty in removing and processing lignin remains a major obstacle to accessing the valuable sugars contained within biomass, adding energy and cost to the production of biofuels.

Seeing an opportunity to carry out Ralph’s concept in poplar, GLBRC researchers pooled their expertise. To produce the enhanced poplars, Wilkerson identified and isolated a gene capable of making monomers – molecular glue of sorts – with bonds that are easier to break apart. Next, Shawn Mansfield with the University of British Columbia successfully put that gene into poplars. The team then determined that the plants not only created the monomers but also incorporated them into the lignin polymer.

This introduced weak links into the lignin backbone and transformed the poplars’ natural lignin into a more easily degradable version. “We can now move beyond tinkering with the known genes in the lignin pathway to using exotic genes to alter the lignin polymer in predesigned but plant-compatible ways,” Ralph said.

“This approach should pave the way to generating more valuable biomass that can be processed in a more energy efficient manner for biofuels and paper products.” The research also is noteworthy for being the direct result of a collaboration funded by the GLBRC, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and created to make transformational breakthroughs in new cellulosic biofuels technology.

Realizing the collaborative project called for a wide array of expertise, from finding the gene and introducing it into the plants, to proving, via newly designed analyses, that the plant was utilizing the new monomers in making its lignin. “I guarantee that John Ralph and I would never have met without the GLBRC,” Wilkerson said.

“When I first met him at a group retreat, I knew very little about lignin. But I ended up sharing some techniques I’d been using for totally different projects that I thought might be useful for his ‘zip-lignin’ research. The collaboration really grew from there.”

Layne Cameron | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: biomass clear crops exotic genes monomers poplar produce

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Discovery about new battery overturns decades of false assumptions
07.10.2015 | Oregon State University

nachricht New polymer creates safer fuels
02.10.2015 | California Institute of Technology

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Kick-off for a new era of precision astronomy

The MICADO camera, a first light instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), has entered a new phase in the project: by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding, the partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, have all confirmed their participation. Following this milestone, the project's transition into its preliminary design phase was approved at a kick-off meeting held in Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on September 18, the consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is building the telescope, have signed the corresponding collaboration agreement.

As the first dedicated camera for the E-ELT, MICADO will equip the giant telescope with a capability for diffraction-limited imaging at near-infrared...

Im Focus: Locusts at the wheel: University of Graz investigates collision detector inspired by insect eyes

Self-driving cars will be on our streets in the foreseeable future. In Graz, research is currently dedicated to an innovative driver assistance system that takes over control if there is a danger of collision. It was nature that inspired Dr Manfred Hartbauer from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Graz: in dangerous traffic situations, migratory locusts react around ten times faster than humans. Working together with an interdisciplinary team, Hartbauer is investigating an affordable collision detector that is equipped with artificial locust eyes and can recognise potential crashes in time, during both day and night.

Inspired by insects

Im Focus: Physicists shrink particle accelerator

Prototype demonstrates feasibility of building terahertz accelerators

An interdisciplinary team of researchers has built the first prototype of a miniature particle accelerator that uses terahertz radiation instead of radio...

Im Focus: Simple detection of magnetic skyrmions

New physical effect: researchers discover a change of electrical resistance in magnetic whirls

At present, tiny magnetic whirls – so called skyrmions – are discussed as promising candidates for bits in future robust and compact data storage devices. At...

Im Focus: High-speed march through a layer of graphene

In cooperation with the Center for Nano-Optics of Georgia State University in Atlanta (USA), scientists of the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität have made simulations of the processes that happen when a layer of carbon atoms is irradiated with strong laser light.

Electrons hit by strong laser pulses change their location on ultrashort timescales, i.e. within a couple of attoseconds (1 as = 10 to the minus 18 sec). In...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

EHFG 2015: Securing healthcare and sustainably strengthening healthcare systems

01.10.2015 | Event News

Conference in Brussels: Tracking and Tracing the Smallest Marine Life Forms

30.09.2015 | Event News

World Alzheimer`s Day – Professor Willnow: Clearer Insights into the Development of the Disease

17.09.2015 | Event News

Latest News

NASA provides an infrared look at Hurricane Joaquin over time

08.10.2015 | Earth Sciences

Theoretical computer science provides answers to data privacy problem

08.10.2015 | Information Technology

Stellar desk in wave-like motion

08.10.2015 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>