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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This is the stuff of science fiction movies which are, by the way, my favorite genre. I have been amazed over and over again how the stuff of science fiction eventually becomes scientific fact. I have always loved science and was pretty good at it in school. Now I just write about it on blogs. One scientific dream that was once science fiction is now becoming a fact and that is the collecting of the Sun’s energy in space and beaming it back to earth. This has, in fact, been an idea bounced around in the scientific world for over 40 years. But Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson aside, this idea has now garnered interest from the US Military as well and thanks to advances in technology is close to becoming reality today.

One of the drawbacks in the development of sources for solar power is that it requires the Sun 24/7, which is just not possible from the surface of an orbiting planet. This requirement is the result of the need for electricity every day, around the clock and the drawback is that the Sun is not available all the time and even when it is, it is often reduced by clouds or rain. So how do you fill in the blanks? So that solar power becomes a viable, around the clock source of electrical power?


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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In October of 2009, Dow Chemical unveiled its line of Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles, revolutionary photovoltaic solar panels in the form of solar shingles. These shingles can be integrated into rooftops with standard asphalt shingle materials. The innovative product design reduces installation costs because the conventional roofing shingles and solar generating shingles are installed simultaneously by roofing contractors. This is the biggest forward leap that anyone has made in producing solar roofing materials that can be utilized easily. This will ultimately hold down labor and time related costs as well as the cost of materials.

These solar shingle systems are going to be available in limited quantities sometime this year and are projected to be more widely available as soon as 2011. This new products puts the power of solar electricity generation into the hands of homeowners at a reasonable cost and without a lot of specialized labor. This product is the result of groundbreaking technology from Dow Solar and integrates low-cost, thin-film CIGS photovoltaic cells into a proprietary roofing shingle design, making it useable by standard current roofing companies. This integrated shingle is, literally, a multi-functional solar energy generating roofing product.

The way this innovative product design reduces installation costs is through the integration of the standard shingles and the solar panels. This allows conventional roofing shingles and solar generating shingles to be installed simultaneously by roofing contractors. Dow Solar (DSS) expects an enthusiastic response from roofing contractors since no specialized skills or knowledge of solar array installations are required. As I already said, this is a huge step forward in making solar panels accessible as they have always required specialized knowledge, informed installation and intensive labor and time invested, which drove the cost up over the average homeowners budget.