In a recent research project, scientists at DOE (US Dept of Energy) identified an enzyme responsible for the formation of suberin, which is the woody, waxy, cell wall substance that makes up cork. Suberin controls water and nutrient transportation in plants and keeps pathogens out. The idea is to adjust the permeability of plant tissues by genetic manipulation, leading to easier production of crops that could be used for biofuels. Suberin is mostly found in the cell walls of seed and root systems qne moderates substances that pass into the organisms, acting as a barrier to harmful substances while encouraging the intake of water and other nutrients. It also aids in the storage of fluids.

What this boils down to is that suberin can be used to encourage the growth of plants for biofuels, including plants that have been hard to cultivate. It could be used to modify plants so that their production is greater and easier. Many plants that have been isolated for use as biofuels are agriculturally demanding and land amassing.

In this experiment, the scientists analyzed a strain of Arabidopsis that had been genetically modified to disrupt the expression of a gene that codes for an enzyme known as hydroxyacid
hydroxycinnamoyltransferase (HHT).  Chemical analysis showed that “knocking out” the HHT gene led to a deficiency of suberin phenolics, indicating that HHT is the enzyme responsible for biosynthesis of the polymer. The scientists then isolated the gene and expressed it in bacteria to further characterize its function.

It was also demonstrated that the HHT-deficient plants were much more permeable to salt in solution than their wild-type counterparts. This finding, together with the constant presence of suberin in plant root tissues that control water and salt uptake, suggests that suberin plays an important role in the adaptation of plants to their terrestrial habitats. Translation: Suberin, found in cork, makes plants more adaptable and easier to cultivate.

If they get a handle on the mechanism responsible for suberin production they might be able to create crops tailored to thrive in specific environments. This means harsh environments, which have been a roadblock to growing plants that can produce economically efficient biofuels. If certain breeds can be created that are more adept at absorbing and storing water and nutrients, then crops could be grown in dry or arid climates, perhaps even in the desert. If they could make use out of the currently unusable vast landscapes that comprise our deserts, then the aerable land used for more delicate food crops could be spared. As well, the current finding that modifications in suberin phenolic production can alter plants’ tolerance to salt suggests that this might also help create crops that can grow in salty conditions. This means agricultural use for currently useless land on our coasts.

This is a fantastic step forward in the science of creating plants for biofuels. It makes use of currently unviable lands, frees up aerable land for food crops and promises the proliferation of genetically modified, non food, crops for use as sustainable biofuels. Looks like a win-win to me!

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According to OPEC’s 2009 World Outlook, world demand for middle distillate fuel, chiefly diesel, will grow faster than any other refined oil product, up to as much as 34.2 million barrels per day by 2030. The U.S. currently consumes around 19 million barrels of fuel per day, with diesel accounting for 3 million or around 16% of that amount.

Joule Biotechnologies, Inc, a producer of alternative energy technologies based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced in 2009 that it had made a major step forward in its’ development of renewable fuels. This step forward involves the direct microbial conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into hydrocarbons via engineered organisms, powered by solar energy. I know it sounds convoluted but the creation of renewable energy requires working around.. and I mean a long way around.. current technologies.


Here is another idea for biofuel: Sunflowers. I know this makes about a hundred ideas that have crossed the table, from algae to corn and back, but they are trying, I suspect, to come up with something that doesn’t take up too much land, is sustainable over the long haul and can be processed inexpensively. So in their search for this miracle, scientists in Canada are trying to determine the genetic makeup of Sunflowers in the hopes that it will lead to a species that can be used for both food and fuel. This is a great idea; something sustainable that has more than one purpose. In this regard, plants that can be used for both food and fuel should be first in line on the testing table.

So the USDA has joined a venture with Genome Canada and France’s NIAR (National Institute for Agricultural Research) which aims to create a reference genome for Sunflowers within the next four years. That seems reasonable to me. I just hope they don’t end up genetically modifying Sunflowers now, creating frankenseeds. That would be another mess like the failed attempt to modify corn for food and fuel. That little experiment had the entire world rejecting our corn, including starving masses who would take the bags and dump them rather than eat them and this during major disasters and war.

The Sunflower comes for the world’s largest plant family. This family of plants contains 24,000 species of food crops, medicinal plants, decorative plants and noxious weeds. As a footnote, I will add that the Sunflower genome is 3.5 billion letters long, slightly larger than the human genome. In modern molecular biology, the genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information. It is encoded either in DNA or, for many types of virus, in RNA. The genome includes both the genes and the non-coding sequences of the DNA.

But once the experiment is completed and the genetic makeup of the Sunflower is known, the species could be crossbred to produce a plant that grows as high as 15 feet with stalks up to 4 inches in diameter and also produces high quality seeds. Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? It’s almost scary when you think about it. But a plant like this, capable of both feeding and fueling, would be a miracle of sorts. The project engineers are saying that the seeds would be harvested for both food and energy, while the stalks could also be used like wood or converted to ethanol. Quite a feat, I believe. A dual use crop that they hope will not be competition with other food crops for arable land. Sustainable. Imagine that! All I hope at this point in time that this isn’t just another scheme dreamed up by folk who want government money to fool around for awhile. We’ve had quite a few busts so far and I am not sure we can afford a lot more of that. I’ll be watching this study closely and I will report back on the results.

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A project that begins early this year in Kansas will attempt to use cow manure to create fuel that would help produce electricity. Grant County economic development director Gene Pflughoft said the plan to turn cow manure into electricity is a perfect fit for Kansas given the state has two cows for every person.  Cattle country.

The thing about this that is interesting is that manure is renewable. I mean, cows keep pooping, don’t they? As long as people eat meat there will be cows to create manure. In fact, the manure produced by a single cow during a year is the equivalent to 140 gallons of gasoline in terms of energy, according to the Kansas Star.

A report by the Bipartisan Policy Conference in Washington suggested by mixing cow manure with coal as many as 24,000 homes could be powered by the manure produced by 50,000 cows. Personally, I don’t like the coal thing thrown in there because coal is so destructive to the environment. I wish they would find something else that would work.

This project is a demonstration that will involve a mix of 90% coal & 10% manure that will be used to generate electricity at a Kansas power plant. Why is it going to be 90% coal? They just can’t stop raping the Appalachia trail, I guess. Too much at stake for the local business community. But the truth is they have ruined the environmental value of their experiment with this and it is really only an experiment in reducing costs so more money can be made.  Sad and short sighted.

Unfortunately, Plughoft told the Star if the project is successful, expansion would be a likely future step. That is horrible for the local communities because it is unlikely their fuel costs will go down and at the same time, they will keep blowing the lids off of mountains and putting coal dust in the water supplies.

“Our goal is to put one in every feedlot and hook it up to the grid,” the official said.

Oh, goody.

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This is in light of my last post. As I said, many biofuel developers are busy behind the wheel trying to create a viable jet fuel and there are a few airlines already working hard on making it happen. Heck, it would not only reduce carbon footprints but it would do just as much good to the bottom line. Gas prices, especially high end fuels, is going to rise, rise, rise over the next decade and the way out of that expense may very well run through a vegetable or tree farm.

For instance, Air New Zealand has tested a passenger jet powered by a second-generation biofuel derived from plants that do not compete with food crops. This is a much needed variation, no matter what the corn or peanut industries would like us to believe, as food crops are going to become harder and harder to sustain and world food supplies are going to dwindle over the next century. Air New Zealand ran the flight to and from Auckland International Airport using a 50-50 mix of standard A1 jet fuel and oil from Jatropha trees in one of its four engines. Although this is not the ideal ending to the concept, the best solution would be to run on NO jet fuel at all, this is a good beginning. The flight included a series of tests to assess how the biofuel-powered engine operated compared to the ones running on kerosene at different speeds and at different stages of a normal flight.


This was all the news back in October 2009. Members of the airline industry group “IATA” pledged to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent a year until 2020, and called on governments worldwide to provide incentives to speed biofuel development. There have been advances made in jet liner biofuels and I will be posting more on this in the near future. The idea of airliners running on biofuel is an exciting one, but is it viable?

The industry group represents all the major airlines, worldwide, and it is noteworthy that they also agreed to reduce carbon emissions by a full 50% of current levels by the year 2050. This all occurred in a meeting on climate change held in Montreal in 2009.

IATA director Giovanni Bisignani has been quoted as saying that the meeting had made it “absolutely clear that industry is committed to improving environmental performance”. He also was quoted as saying that cooperation between states and airlines would be key to lowering emissions. It is my opinion, at this time, that this remains to be seen.

Mr. Bisignani also said that “Governments have some homework to do, improving air traffic management and accelerating biofuel development by establishing the right fiscal and legal frameworks.” At the same meeting, he also called for “aviation access to global carbon markets to offset emissions until technology provides the ultimate solution.”

All of this is fine and dandy but in light of the sad results of last years Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, these goals are merely goals and do not look doable in the long run. Not that airline carbon reduction would be a huge factor anyways. Accordiing to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), airlines are only responsible for 2% of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide and about 3% of emissions currently linked to climate change. This is really nothing compared to the farming industry, agriculture and the mowing down of the rainforest for toilet paper.

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A company called “LiveFuels” has announced the start of pilot operations at the company’s test facility in Brownsville, TX. The facility consists of 45 acres of open saltwater ponds and will be used for research on optimizing algal productivity and increasing the rates of conversion of biomass into renewable oils. LiveFuels grows a robust mix of native algae species in low-cost, open-water systems. This is in stark contrast to may other companies who grow singular cultures of algae and often genetically modified strains. As a natural, environmentally friendly business, LiveFuels harvests the algae by using “algae grazers,” which includes such natural harvesters as filter-feeding fish and a variety of other aquatic herbivores. This in place of expensive and energy-intensive mechanical equipment. As a result, these species can easily be processed into renewable oils and many other valuable co-products.

To date, LiveFuels has filed ten U.S. patents for its proprietary approach to growing and harvesting algal biomass. At the Brownsville facility, the company will conduct research on optimizing the productivity of natural aquatic ecosystems through biological and environmental conditions. The results will be used for an expansion to full-scale commercial operations along the coast of Louisiana. And all of this is being done in this revolutionary, environmentally friendly fashion. Kudos. to LiveFuels.