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!
Waste from paper and pulp industry supplies raw material for development of new redox flow batteries
12.10.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Low-cost battery from waste graphite
11.10.2017 | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
20.10.2017 | Information Technology
20.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.10.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research