Skip to Content

A Novel Way to Cut the Cost of Advanced Biofuels

Modifying a gene in plants makes it far easier to process biomass to make fuel.
August 15, 2013

A novel genetic modification to plants could make advanced biofuels more competitive with fossil fuels, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The modification could achieve this by rendering an expensive step in making such biofuels unnecessary.

red dyed cross section of a stem
Biofuel blocker: Lignin, dyed red in this cross section of a stem, makes it hard to turn biomass into fuel.

Currently almost all ethanol production comes from the sugar and starch in sugarcane and corn grain. Producing biofuels from biomass remains too expensive to be competitive, partly because the current method for freeing up the cellulose from lignin, the substance that gives plants woody properties, is to treat biomass with hot acid. This step is expensive in part because it requires specialized equipment that can withstand the acid.

In the new work, researchers discovered that when they eliminated a key gene responsible for how lignin is formed, plants produced far less of the substance. They then showed that 80 percent of the cellulose in these modified plants could be converted to sugar without treating them with acid. In comparison, in untreated, ordinary plants, only 18 percent of the cellulose could be converted.

The work is still far from commercial application. The researchers have yet to show that the approach works with the kind of plants that will be used for making biofuels, such as switchgrass or poplar, but they’ve found similar lignin-producing steps in these plants, suggesting that it will be possible to transfer the approach.

Another challenge is that the genetic modification produces shorter plants with less biomass, which would lead to lower biofuel yields. The problem is that lignin is a crucial structural material, and decreasing it too much affects the way plants grow. But researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently demonstrated a way to reduce lignin content in some parts of the plant, but not others, thereby allowing the plant to grow normally. Woet Boerjan, a professor at VIB, a research institute in Belgium, and one of the researchers involved in the new work, says a similar approach could work in their case.

Meanwhile, companies have been developing their own ways around the acid treatment. Ceres, based in Thousand Oaks, California, says it has modified plants, including reducing lignin content. It’s tested the approach in labs, and is now growing crops that it will harvest and test this fall. Richard Hamilton, Ceres’s CEO, says eliminating the acid pre-treatment could reduce the amount of enzymes needed to convert cellulose into sugar, and could cut as much as $1 per gallon from the cost of making ethanol from biomass, a large reduction for an industry that hopes to reach costs of $3 to $4 per gallon.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

masked travellers at Heathrow airport
masked travellers at Heathrow airport

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.