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.”
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!
Neutrons pave the way to accelerated production of lithium-ion cells
20.03.2018 | Technische Universität München
Monocrystalline silicon thin film for cost-cutting solar cells with 10-times faster growth rate fabricated
16.03.2018 | Tokyo Institute of Technology
Satellites in near-Earth orbit are at risk due to the steady increase in space debris. But their mission in the areas of telecommunications, navigation or weather forecasts is essential for society. Fraunhofer FHR therefore develops radar-based systems which allow the detection, tracking and cataloging of even the smallest particles of debris. Satellite operators who have access to our data are in a better position to plan evasive maneuvers and prevent destructive collisions. From April, 25-29 2018, Fraunhofer FHR and its partners will exhibit the complementary radar systems TIRA and GESTRA as well as the latest radar techniques for space observation across three stands at the ILA Berlin.
The "traffic situation" in space is very tense: the Earth is currently being orbited not only by countless satellites but also by a large volume of space...
An international team of researchers has discovered a new anti-cancer protein. The protein, called LHPP, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells in the liver. The researchers led by Prof. Michael N. Hall from the Biozentrum, University of Basel, report in “Nature” that LHPP can also serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer.
The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing. In the last twenty years, the number of cases has almost doubled...
In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.
Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...
Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.
They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...
A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...
23.03.2018 | Event News
19.03.2018 | Event News
16.03.2018 | Event News
23.03.2018 | Life Sciences
23.03.2018 | Materials Sciences
23.03.2018 | Process Engineering