If Purdue University researchers have their way, the term “biofuel plant” will take on a whole new meaning.
A team received a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop a plant that can make substances that could be used directly as a biofuel. The idea is to reroute carbon that plants currently use to make lignin – a barrier to cellulosic ethanol production – and turn it into a biofuel.
“Scientists have been focused on getting the sugars out of cell walls and using microorganisms to ferment those sugars into fuel,” said Clint Chapple, the grant’s principal investigator and a distinguished professor of biochemistry. “We want to take advantage of a plant’s metabolic pathways to make biofuel directly.”
Purdue acting President Timothy Sands said the work is an example of harnessing science to find solutions for global problems.
“Addressing our world’s energy needs will take multiple solutions, and Purdue researchers have long been a part of significant developments in this field,” Sands said.
Chapple said about 25 percent of a plant’s biomass is lignin, a rigid compound in plants’ cell walls and one that cannot currently be conveniently converted to a liquid fuel. Chapple’s team wants to reroute the molecule that plants funnel into lignin production – the common amino acid phenylalanine – into an alternative metabolic pathway to create phenylethanol, a combustible biofuel that could then be blended with gasoline, much like ethanol is now.
“We wouldn’t be able to literally squeeze fuel from the plants, but it would be close,” Chapple said.
Co-investigator Natalia Dudareva, a distinguished professor of horticulture, will focus on increasing phenylalanine production in plants. John Morgan, an associate professor of chemical engineering, will analyze the results of these efforts and develop mathematical models to determine the most efficient methods for rerouting phenylalanine and for making phenylethanol.
Chapple said the team would work with the common research plant Arabidopsis before applying any findings to a biofuel plant such as poplar trees or switchgrass.