What are biofuels and why are they considered green? Unlike the fossil fuels we are familiar with, which are the remains of plant tissue and plankton that died millions of years ago, biofuels are produced from fresh vegetation which contains a significantly less amount of carbon. Fossil fuels contain high amounts of carbon because they are made up of plant life from the Carboniferous Period which have decayed for millions of years before leaving a behind the carbon rich remnants that are used for oil and petroleum today.
One of the main concerns in the production of fuel from plant matter is the cost to produce along with the land mass the crop will consume. Obviously we all need to eat, so land management becomes a challenge to balance the production of food crops and biofuel crops. Once government incentives became available to farmers many switched their crops to take advantage of the offer leaving a forecast of possible food shortages. So what can be done to solve this problem?
A solution may lie in harvesting switch grass, a form of prairie grass once thought to be unusable to farmers. Switch grass has the ability to grow in soils that are not ideal for food crops making it an ideal candidate for production without disrupting food supplies. Even more, it is estimated that on a reasonable amount of land a farmer can produce five times as much fuel that it takes to produce and harvest switch grass.
Another challenge scientists face in the production of biofuels is converting a plant’s biomass into the raw materials required for fuel production. Wood for example contains lignin which must be removed before the sugary cellulose can be harvested. Traditionally this would require heating the wood and using chemicals to deteriorate the lignin. But biologists may have discovered a way to get around these hassles through bioengineering.
By genetically modify certain trees biologists have found that they can create self-destructing cells when the plant dies. This may allow scientists to harvest biomass quicker and in a more cost efficient manner. Ordinarily engineers would use sodium hydroxide and temperatures up to 170°C to prep the biomass for use.
Plant biologists from Perdue University and biochemists from the University of Wisconsin, Madison have isolated the genes associated with the production of lignin and found that by injecting ferulic acid (FA) they can bond disrupt bonds between CA and SA building block pairs. Stripping the FA molecules is significantly easier to do with chemicals allowing biochemists to harvest biofuels from the plant mass more efficiently.
As further research continues it is likely that tremendous leaps are slated in the future of biofuel production. With more funding backing research into alternative energy solutions it seems apparent that there is not a single solution to achieving clean energy independence but the future lies in the balance of a variety of green energy solutions.Tags: bioengineering, biofuels, energy resources