Genetically Engineered Trees as Biofuel Feedstock

[Now that corn ethanol has fallen out of favor politically, the bioenergy industry will be focusing more and more on forests.]

- by Alex Maragos, November 28, 2014, WLFI

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"323","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"width: 330px; height: 392px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"404"}}]]Ethanol made from corn already powers millions of cars and trucks on the road, but a group of researchers at Purdue University wants to make biofuel better. Since corn ethanol affects the food supply, this group creates fuel from something nobody eats — trees.

The quest to make better fuel involves several professors and students from the school’s chemical engineering and forestry departments. Every step of the process to make fuel from wood is carefully calculated and tested, starting with the type of tree the researchers need.

Poplar trees grow on three acres at the recently dedicated Richard G. Lugar Forestry Farm at Purdue. These trees are not rare, but this group is one of a kind. They were born in a lab by Purdue forestry professor Rick Meilan. He crossbred different strains to come up with the trees that would resist disease, grow fast and potentially produce the most fuel.

“We can genetically engineer it relatively easily,” Meilan said while walking among the nearly 2,000 poplars he planted. “Ten or 15 years from now we’ll be able to utilize these trees as a biomass source for making ethanol. So rather than relying exclusively on corn for making ethanol to use as a fuel, we’ll be able to use the sugars in the walls of these trees.”