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Posted: Dec 18, 2012

New European grant to search for new resources for biorefineries

(Nanowerk News) When the oil refineries run out of oil they might be replaced by biorefineries. For the time being an efficient feed stock for these soon to be created refineries is still missing. In the frame of the EU project “MultiBioPro” science and economy are working together to find the best resources. Instead of typical energy plants the project focuses on exploiting poplar and the tobacco tree Nicotiana glauca. The latter is especially interesting since it can be grown in extremely arid climates such as deserts. Coordinator of the project is Dr. Staffan Persson from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiologe (MPI-MP).
The biofuels we use today are harshly criticized, since they are exclusively produced from the edible parts of plants. In the biorefineries of tomorrow, we are supposed to see a different picture. Instead of corn cobs and sugar cane the refineries should be fed the residues of plants and make the most out of plant products that would have otherwise gone to waste. This could also end the reallocation of farm land to produce energy crops, since the new plants are not typical crop plants, but grow in quite different environments.
Tree tobacco could be grown in deserts and does not compete with traditional crop land
One candidate is the tree tobacco Nicotiana glauca. The scientists of the consortium chose this plant, because it can grow under extremely dry conditions on depleted soils. 200 mm of rainfall per year and temperatures of over 40 degree Celsius would not harm the tree and it could be cultivated in areas with severe droughts, like deserts, that are unsuitable for normal agriculture.
N. glauca does not deliver food or tobacco. Instead it produces high contents of hydrocarbons. “The hydrocarbon content in the leaves is so high that we can easily extract them by simply dipping the leaves in an appropriate solvent,” Dr. Alisdair Fernie from the MPI-MP describes the special characteristics of the plant. These hydrocarbons then can either be used directly as fuel or as an additive to make cleaner fuels with less particulates and carbon monoxide.
Partners from industry test which processes are feasible and economically interesting
Another plant that caught the attention of the scientists is the fast growing poplar tree. “We are mainly interested in finding use for waste products like bark, and also change the cell wall composition to generate trees suitable for more efficient biofuel production,” Dr. Staffan Persson explains one part of the project. Lignin, the main structural component of wood, is mostly famous for hindering the production of biofuel from plant cell walls. But the building blocks from which lignin is constructed, so-called phenylpropanoids, have proven beneficial health effects most likely as a result of their strong antioxidant activities. “If we obstruct the lignin synthesis we get more phenylpropanoids for free. With increasing pressure on land usage this is highly attractive since it would potentially allow a dual purpose crop with both fuel and medicinal harvests,” says Fernie. In the case of N. glauca this may even be possible on what would traditionally be regarded as barren land.
In the frame of the research project MultiBiopro Alisdair Fernie and Staffan Persson work together with other research institutes and partners from industry. Together they want to find out which processes are both viable and economically interesting. The funding period is four years and the EU grant totals almost 5.8 million euros.
MultiBioPro
The project MultiBioPro unites eleven partners from science and industry. Led by the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, scientists and companies from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain and Germany work together to assign individual biomass compounds their best possible usage. Besides from producing biofuels from hitherto unused plant material they hope to gain knowledge about substances with health benefits.
Source: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology
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