Research For Our Energy Future


Harnessing the power of plants to fuel our future

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Poplar plants at 10 weeks after being treated with endophytic bacteria (right) compared with control plants (left). The inoculated plants show increased root and shoot formation.

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Altering Plant Oils

Breaking Down Walls

To facilitate the breakdown of plant cell walls and the separation of products for further processing into biofuels, Brookhaven scientists are also investigating novel chemical treatments. One such method uses “ionic liquids,” an environmentally friendly solvent, to separate lignin from cellulose in solution. Ionic liquids offer many advantages over traditional solvents, including the ability to be used over and over.

The Brookhaven team is also looking to Nature for clues to efficient biomass degradation. In collaborative projects with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Joint Genome Institute, and DOE’s Bioenergy Science Center based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Brookhaven biologists are prospecting for microbes and enzymes already adept at breaking down biomass. In one project, they isolated the microbial communities degrading poplar biomass in a compost heap and sequenced over half a billion nucleotides of DNA from these microbes, looking for genes encoding the enzymes involved in biomass decomposition. Previously unidentified enzymes discovered through this process can then be cloned and tested to see if they surpass the ability of enzymes currently used to degrade cellulose and hemicellulose.

Brookhaven researchers also have extensive experience with Clostridium bacteria, a group of soil microbes that can be used in fermentation for the efficient conversion of lignocellulose feedstocks to biofuels.

Oiling the Transition

Drawing on 15 years of research into plant oils and the enzymes that influence their production, another group of Brookhaven scientists is investigating whether plants might be coaxed into producing oil-based biofuels, such as biodiesel. This research was originally directed at producing rare fatty acids and other non-petroleum oils as potential feedstocks for the chemical industry. But the same techniques — modifying enzymes in metabolic pathways to alter the end products — can be used to modify plant oils for the direct production of biofuels, or to alter the fatty acid composition of existing biofuels. Since fatty acid composition affects many of the properties of biofuels — things like melting point and viscosity — the ability to strategically tinker with compositions could lead to improved properties.

Combustion Testing

Scientists at Brookhaven also have extensive experience identifying optimal combustion properties through years of combustion testing for traditional fossil fuels, particularly oil, in conjunction with boilers and other technologies. This work, which has led to improved efficiency, reduced air pollutant emissions, and increased reliability, was recently expanded to include biodiesels. Any new biofuels developed through other research efforts at the Lab could easily be added to this program.

Integrated Approach

This multidisciplinary exploration draws on the strengths of many existing research programs across scientific disciplines and departments at Brookhaven Lab, and emphasizes the flexibility inherent in a national laboratory setting for maximizing the impact of such an integrated research program. Collaborative research with other DOE labs and nearby institutions such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University can only serve to help this research grow.

If successful, the effort to identify and tailor new energy sources from plant products could go a long way towards addressing our nation’s future energy needs. As an added benefit, converting to the use of plants as resources for carbon-based fuels will result in a more balanced carbon “budget” for our planet. That’s because the carbon released by burning these fuels was only recently removed from the atmosphere, so returning it there has no net impact on global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

This is quite different from the release of carbon that was stored millennia ago in fossil fuels, which has been increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 and altering our climate. Biofuels may not reverse these changes. But if developed in sustainable ways, they will help bring us closer to the goal of a greener planet.

Last Modified: November 6, 2009