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Arabidopsis Plant  (Source:
Biofuel that won't negatively affect the food chain

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, who are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and are now part of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, have found plant enzymes that usually make energy hard to extract when it is stored in straw, wood and many other non-edible plant parts. This discovery can improve the "viability" of sustainable biofuels without negatively affecting the food chain.

The research team, led by Professor Paul Dupree, studied and identified genes for two different types of enzymes that make straw, stalks and wood tough, and also make sugars hard to extract in order to make bioethanol. Knowing which enzymes make extraction difficult can help crop-breeding programs produce non-edible plant parts that require less chemicals, energy and processing when being converted into renewable products like biofuels. 

"There is a lot of energy stored in wood and straw in the form of a substance called lignocellulose," said Dupree. "We wanted to find ways to make it easier to get at this energy and extract it in the form of sugars that can be fermented to produce bioethanol and other products." 

Plants obtain their rigidity and strength from lignocellulose, and a key component of lignocellulose is xylan. Xylan is locked away inside wood and straw with potential to provide one third of sugars used to make bioethanol from these inedible plant parts. Unlocking energy from lignocellulose will be important to the potential use of inedible plant parts as biofuels.

The researchers came to their conclusions after studying the Arabidopsis plant, which lacks the two main enzymes that create the xylan in the lignocellulose part in plants. Stems without these enzymes were weaker, but grew normally and required less effort to convert xylan into sugar. 

"As oil reserves deplete, we must urgently find alternatives to oil-based fuels, plastics, lubricants and other products," said Duncan Egger, BBSRC Bioenergy Champion. "This research is a good example where understanding the fundamental biology of plants gives us the foundation to use plants to produce a raft of important products."

According to Dupree, the next step will be to create new varieties of bioenergy crops to see if they can breed plants like willow and miscanthus grass with certain properties in order to "develop more sustainable processes for generating fuels from crop residues." 

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Not in Europe
By Mogounus on 9/14/2010 12:48:35 PM , Rating: 4
Genetically modified fuel... another thing for people to get upset about rather than concentrate on the real issues.

RE: Not in Europe
By Denigrate on 9/14/2010 1:06:54 PM , Rating: 4
Not too mention that ethanol is a loser in terms of fuel efficiency and polution.

RE: Not in Europe
By RugMuch on 9/14/10, Rating: -1
RE: Not in Europe
By SAmely on 9/14/2010 1:27:40 PM , Rating: 3

RE: Not in Europe
By Briliu on 9/14/2010 2:00:09 PM , Rating: 3

You put gasoline, anti-freeze, lubricant oil, transmission fluid, shock fluid, and/or break fluid in your body?


RE: Not in Europe
By quiksilvr on 9/14/2010 2:00:31 PM , Rating: 5
I call it population control.

RE: Not in Europe
By zippyzoo on 9/14/2010 3:16:59 PM , Rating: 2
I hear ya nothin but good old organics.

Who down rates with so many responses?

RE: Not in Europe
By soydios on 9/14/2010 3:37:17 PM , Rating: 2
I chuckled.

RE: Not in Europe
By Jellodyne on 9/14/2010 4:16:49 PM , Rating: 1
When stepping into my car, the first thing I usually put into it is my right leg.

RE: Not in Europe
By RugMuch on 9/14/2010 5:19:23 PM , Rating: 2
Zing! a good old footing

RE: Not in Europe
By DigitalFreak on 9/14/10, Rating: 0
RE: Not in Europe
By spread on 9/15/2010 12:12:31 PM , Rating: 2
He also uses it on the car.

RE: Not in Europe
By headbox on 9/14/2010 11:28:37 PM , Rating: 2 say that because you're an expert right? ...not because you just read propaganda published by Big Oil companies?

Brazil has been using 75%+ ethanol in their cars for a long time. Read about it. They use sugar cane, and no- the people of Brazil aren't starving to death either.

Minnesota has hundreds of ethanol pumps, from ethanol made within the state. It's a flat out LIE that it takes more energy to get it to the pump than it does to use it- that myth is only true if you're an idiot who doesn't realize you don't need to ship it from Saudi Arabia, to a refinery in Texas, to a pump in Duluth, MN.

You anti-ethanol/E85 sheep are just suckers for Big Oil lies.

RE: Not in Europe
By Mint on 9/17/2010 2:18:48 PM , Rating: 2
News flash: The US doesn't have the climate to produce sugar cane.

It's not about getting it to the pump, it's about the true unsubsidized cost ($ and energy) of broad scale ethanol production, including land and especially fertilizer production.

The biggest problem with biofuels as an energy solution is that they don't reduce pollution. Tens of thousands of people die prematurely in the US each year due to air pollution, particularly in cities due to population concentration (which is not something we should avoid because it brings a million other efficiencies with it).

The proper solution is PHEV. Use batteries for 80%+ of our driving and have gas backup for long distance hauls. Generate electricity with nuclear or, if we must stick with coal, keep generating it away from cities.

No affect on food chain??
By cornelius785 on 9/14/2010 1:35:07 PM , Rating: 2
So have they looked at the land area required to shift over a large amount of fuel production to biofuel? Probably not. You'll need a HUGE amount of land to pull off a large switch over to biofuel. I just don't see how biofuel won't affect the food supply for large scale switch overs.

see: for some more information.

RE: No affect on food chain??
By Ammohunt on 9/14/2010 2:36:14 PM , Rating: 2
I was thinking the same where would this non-edible fuel source plant best be grown? Arable land duh!

RE: No affect on food chain??
By headbox on 9/14/2010 11:35:16 PM , Rating: 1
Morons. Brazil uses 75% Ethanol, and no one is starving to death. Stop buying into the Big Oil funded LIES.

RE: No affect on food chain??
By flatrock on 9/15/2010 1:16:51 PM , Rating: 2
Brazil has a good climate for growing products like sugarcane which convert well to ethanol. The warm climate also works well with Ethanol. The percentage of Ethanol in E85 in the US drops considerably in the winter months because of problems using high percentages of Ethanol in cold weather.

While there are a lot of places in the US where E85 is available, it is only economically competitive due to huge tax breaks and incentives. In order to make ethanol production competitive with gasoline, they need to find a way to break down cellulose efficiently and inexpensively. Making Ethanol from Corn sugars from the kernels does not make economic sense, and that is where most of the Ethanol for E85 is coming from in the US right now.

I have nothing against using E85, but tax breaks to help get the industry going are a very short term solution at best. Otherwise we are going to have to find another way to pay for the roads we all drive on since ethanol currently gets a 51 cent a gallon tax credit on fuel taxes.

RE: No affect on food chain??
By Solandri on 9/14/2010 2:43:51 PM , Rating: 3
Not that I advocate switchgrass, but I can spot a couple problems with that article. First, the picture at the top is deceptive. 170 million hectares is 1.7 million sq km. The 48 continental states (minus Alaska and Hawaii) is about 7.5 million sq km. So the land needed would be less than a quarter of the surface area.

Also, it leads off by saying the reasons switchgrass is considered ideal is because "it needs little fertilizer and water" and is pest-resistant. Then it goes about comparing the area needed to the amount of land dedicated to food crops - land which is cultivated specifically to ease the use of fertilizer and water. Without those requirements, there are lots of other places non-ideal for farming food crops which could be used.

Again, I'm not saying switchgrass is the answer. But after reading the article, I was actually left with the opposite impression of their conclusion - that there probably is enough room and economic opportunity for switchgrass farming to take place in parallel with our food farming.

RE: No affect on food chain??
By Chudilo on 9/14/2010 3:32:46 PM , Rating: 2
Did you trolls even read the article?
It's about an enzyme that will digest the inedible parts of plants we already grow for other purposes (wheat and corn stocks)

RE: No affect on food chain??
By ZmaxDP on 9/14/2010 4:29:34 PM , Rating: 2
Farm much?

Actually the article says: "have found plant enzymes that usually make energy hard to extract when it is stored in straw, wood and many other non-edible plant parts." Just because they are "non-edible" does not mean we don't already utilize them somehow...

Wood, as you may or may not know, is used to build things. Also, most wood is now harvested from re-planted groves. So, while switching to producing bio-fuels from wood would not increase food pressure, it would make your new house a lot more expensive instead - so FAIL. Wait you say? What about wood processing waste like sawdust? Oh wait, that is already used to make paper and other building products like MDF and particle board, wafer boards, etc... - so FAIL part 2.

Thank god for those waste straw - oh wait, isn't that already used to make a) building products like straw board - yes - fail 3 b) turned into the soil to return nutrients to it that would have to be made up for with additional fertilizer - yes - fail 4 c) used as animal food sources for creatures with a less discerning palette than ours - yes - fail 5 d) or used in numerous other ways I probably don't even know about - probably! - fail 6???

My point being, farming and wood harvesting (the PC name for logging) industries have been around a little while and have pretty much already found hundreds of uses for their waste products already. So, taking those waste products and re purposing them WILL impact other industries by reducing supplies of those products. Be it food (produce or livestock), construction, paper, etc... Heck, a lot of the environmentally friendly plastic replacements are based on waste products from the produce industry. This isn't an area where there is a lot of untapped waste.

If you want waste, look to wastewater (aka your body's waste), carbon monoxide from combustion engines, heat energy, or other things where there is a ton of waste produced and little utilization of that waste downstream (pun intended).

RE: No affect on food chain??
By sleepeeg3 on 9/14/2010 7:53:01 PM , Rating: 2
Do you get paid for this?

RE: No affect on food chain??
By Danger D on 9/15/2010 10:46:24 AM , Rating: 2
Well, for one thing, there are about a billion acres of cropland worldwide that were let go to turn wild over the last few decades.

U.S. crop price supports depressed the world price of grain to the point where it costs more to grow a crop than a 3rd-world farmer can get for it at market. Those developing countries don't have the money to pay farmers the way we do in the U.S.

The result? Unemployed former-farmers in rural Africa and elsewhere dependent on U.S. charity for food.

Fuel crops actually provide a real demand that allow prices to naturally get the point where it's once again possible for these developing countries to build up their agriculture systems and infrastructure.

These aren't forests that would be torn down. It's formerly plowed land.

It's not just an environmental issue. It's a basic human dignity issue.

fine line
By kattanna on 9/14/2010 1:36:05 PM , Rating: 2
it will be interesting to see the line they cannot cross before the plant is simply too weak to stand on its own.

then you have to factor in economic costs. will the new seed and methods to extract these sugars be viable financially?

beyond that though, interesting research. if we can find more ways to reduce waste and turn it into useful products, the better.

RE: fine line
By Smartless on 9/14/2010 2:35:42 PM , Rating: 2
My thoughts exactly. I don't understand why they put so much time and energy into growing nearly useless plants for fuel. It seems like you're in Greek Hell and forever pushing that rock up a hill. The rewards MUST somehow outweigh the costs somewhere. Research aside, you still have to maintain, harvest, process, and distribute which adds further cost. The yield seems like it will never outweigh the cost. At least recycling there's additional value.

On a lighter note, we already have humans too weak to stand on their own.... Called politicians.

Soft, fleshy trees?
By Jellodyne on 9/14/2010 4:22:30 PM , Rating: 3
So if they grow trees which don't have this enzyme, will they be soft and fleshy, since they won't be tough? Will they flop over on their sides, and will their soft flesh be digestible and/or delicious or will it be mushy and flavorless like tofu?

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